Saturday, January 24, 2009

Review: Savage Blitz 50 amp

Well, I thought my amp would be done this week, but when they went to change the tubes they took some interest in my amp and suggested some changes and also found some filter caps that were on their last leg. More on all that once my amp is back. In the mean time, Savage Audio was nice enough to loan me one of their amps for the weekend until they're done doing work on my amp. The amp they loaned me was:

Savage Audio Blitz 50
A hand-wired EL34 Marshall style amp. Savage makes great amps, and if nothing else, I was excited to play the same amp Doyle Bramhall (Eric Clapton), Beck, and Stone Gossard of Peal Jam use!! The amp is: 2 channel (normal and bright) with a volume fo reach, reverb, master volume, pentode/triode switchable, 50W, and will allow KT-66 or 6L6 tubes if you rebias.

It took me a while to get a sound dialed in that I liked. The amp has strong punchy bass which is great, but I had a hard time getting the highs to sound right. I ended up jumping the normal and bright channel in order to blend in a bit of the bright channel. After that, things sounded about right to me. Here's how I had it dialed in:

Overall the sound is really punchy and dynamic. It was almost too much for me, but then again I'm used to a 35 year old marshall that probably lost it's punch in the 80s. I use my amps as a clean-ish channel and use pedals to drive things, so that's how I had the Blitz 50 set up. Unfortunately I wasn't in love with the amp as a clean channel. I'd be curious to hear how it sounded with fender style 6L6 tubes, it might sound better clean that way. The amp DID sound great with the gain turned up. It would sound great as a rock amp or in a two amp set up where one amp is clean and the blitz 50 is dirty. The master volume sounded great except for really low volumes, the tone changed below about 9 o'clock and then sounded great, just louder or softer, the the rest of the way around.

Conclusion: Great sounding rock amp, punchy and in your face, good for rock, not the best for clean.

Thanks for the loaner Savage!!!

UPDATE 1/25/09:
I spent way more time with the amp and found a great clean setting that sounds just like my Super bass. They key was to play with the pentode/triode switch. I'm not sure if this is still true, but I read the switch also changes between A and AB circuitry. Whatever the change, I liked it better with the switch flipped up (labeled Solid State, not tube). The amp would totally be usable as a replacement for my Superbass if something were to happen to it. As long as I have the super bass, though, I don't see myself getting a blitz 50 too.

UPDATE 1/29/09:
I hung out at Savage today and asked them about the Solid state/Tube switch. It's NOT pentode/Triode like I had heard, it switches between a tube and SS rectifier. My super bass has a SS rectifier so that explains why it sounded more normal to me. I still think the bass on the tube rectifier was too floppy for me.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Justin Bender's LP

Justin Bender's a dude I met in college and have been playing with for years. We used to be in a band called Justin & Mike and we desperately wanted to be Shane & Shane. At least I did. We also played in Left on Farwell together a few years back. Now he's doing worship leading and has a brand new worship album out, his first LP. Check it out!


Monday, January 19, 2009

to be or not to be... on stage

I'd say it's the norm for worship teams to set up on stage and visually be the center of the room. Usually it's because it's the only place to to set up and that's just how it's done. But in bigger spaces there's a choice that's made about what will be the focus (visually) of the church. In some extremes I've been told to move a few inches to my left or right because I'm not centered with the other side of the stage, or that I need to smile bigger so people can see it from the back! On the opposite side of things I play at places where the band sets up on the ground in front of the stage and we're basically standing in the front row so other things can be the visual center of attention. I don't think either side is more right or more wrong, and it really doesn't bother me one way or the other, but I think it's worth discussing and thinking about. I'll make the argument for both cases and you comment to share your ideas. As a side note, these are just my opinions and obviously don't represent the official stance of either church pictured below. 1,2,3 go:

The worship team should be on stage:

Two pictures of Willow Creek in Chicago. The musicians are on stage and also on the screens. These were shot at a conference, so I can't say whether it represents Willow Creek on a regular Sunday but it is an example of a worship service.

The worship team has two jobs, to make music and to help people connect with God. The difference between playing a worship CD and having a worship team is the human element. Being able to see the worship team helps the congregation connect. They can see the worship team's emotion, see them worship, and it helps the congregation. Some people will be new to church and not sure what to do, seeing the worship team worship will give them an example. Some people don't need to see the worship team so they simply close their eyes. When the worship leader speaks between songs they need to be seen, otherwise it's weird to just hear a voice coming from somewhere. The human interaction and connection is just as important as the music a worship team makes.

The Worship team should not be on stage:

Two shots of my home church, The Upper Room. The top picture shows where the worship team stands and the bottom picture is a better shot of the room and where the focus is.

Whether we realize it or not, churches visually center around that which they worship. When churches worshiped power and wealth they were built to look like castles, when they worship knowledge they're built like a classroom, and when they worship entertainment they're built like a concert hall. That's not to say all churches that have their musicians on stage worship the musicians, but in a society that DOES worship rock stars, why blur the lines? Instead churches should make the statement that they definitely do not worship our musicians. Churches built in the early 20th century often put the musicians on the balcony in the back of the church. We don't go that far, but we do set up on the floor, not the stage. That way we, and the congregation, feel like we're on the same level, all worshiping something bigger. It's easy to forget the band is there and get caught up in moment. The visual focus is the cross, the words to the song, or the imagery on the screens or on stage, rarely the musicians.

What do you think?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Saving incentive

Most of us gear heads aren't the best at keeping our cash. I say cash because we're secretly good at saving... gear just isn't the most liquid of assets. In a pinch we could sell all gear for close to what we paid since we got it used or it's vintage or we made it better or whatever. That makes us better savers than people who throw money away on frivolous stuff with no value, but not by much!

Now is a good time to save money though. While I think the economy and stock market will eventually rebound , the next few years will be interesting to say the least. I've decided to save. Saving isn't fun though, I need something to look foreword to or I'll probably quit. This might be the most backwards incentive to save ever, but I made a deal with myself: If I get my savings to a goal I've set, I'll buy myself something nice. I set my goal pretty high and added in the cost of my "something nice" so I'm not back below my goal after the fun present. The something nice I decided on is a divided by 13 JRT 9/15 combo.

I like my amp so I've never seriously looked at getting another amp, but once in a while I go on the "search for a great amp" just for fun - because sometimes figuring out what to get is more fun than actually having it!! I almost always land on the JRT 9/15. Divided by 13 makes amazing stuff and the JRT 9/15 is like two amps in one, a 9 watt Fender tweed style 6V6 amp and a 15 watt EL84 that's like an AC15 or Marshall 18 watter. It's great for recording and gives a lot of sound options in one package. Even better, it gets tones my superbass can't.

It will be a long time before I get this but hopefully it makes the months of thrifty living more palatable knowing I have something cool to look forward too!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review: Fender Super-Sonic amp

My amp is still in the shop waiting to be retubed so I'm ampless. Kind of like being homeless. Wow, I sound really spoiled saying that! Anyway, so far I haven't needed an amp since I played acoustic in a wedding and at church last weekend and I have a tiny little solid state amp in my room for practicing. I had a rehearsal tonight so it was time to borrow an amp. My friend works at a music store and agreed to grab me something. I knew their selection, and the Fender Super-Sonic was what I was hoping to try, but I didn't want to be choosey so I didn't ask for anything specific. With that said, I was pretty excited when he said he had brought over the super-sonic!

The Super-sonic is a newer amp from Fender and it's designed to be super versatile. It's all tube amp with two basic modes: Vintage and burn (modern) with two overarching tones - Bassman and Vibrolux. It puts out 60 watts into a single 12" Celestion Vintage 30.

There's a distinct tonal difference between the bassman and vibrolux, the bassman has a more full bottom end and is darker sounding (kind of bluesy) while the vibrolux has the classic fender "clean" sparkle. I haven't done much digging but I don't think they use a different analog circuit to get the different tones, I suspect there's some digital modeling going on. It's neither a true bassman or a vibrolux circuit (again just assuming for now) but both modes sounded convincing.

The vintage and burn modes control the way the preamp behaves. The vintage mode uses a non-master volume control meaning as you turn up the volume the gain increases (like vintage amps did). That means to get a lot of overdrive the amp has to be very loud. I found it started breaking up between 2 and 3 which was too loud for bedroom playing, and just slightly loud for playing with a drumset. The burn mode uses a master volume and two stages of gain. That means you can turn the gain (overdrive) way up and still keep the volume lower. For distorted tones you would use the burn mode, for clean and light overdrive you would use the vintage mode... or do it like me and use the vintage mode and use pedals to get your overdrive.

The super-sonic also has analog spring reverb that can be use on any mode. There's also an FX loop with output and input volumes. The output/input volume could be used for effects in the loop, or you can plug a cable strait from the out to the in and use the input volume as a gain boost - especially nice since you can turn the FX loop on and off from the footswitch that comes with the amp. Instant clean boost! There's a regular speaker output (8 ohms) connected to the Vintage 30 and an extension speaker out (also 8 ohms) that can be used along with the built in speaker. There's also a head-only version that's shorter and doesn't have the speaker built in. The preamp tubes are six 12AX7 and two 12AT7 and the power amp tubes are two 6L6GC.

My Thoughts
I've had my eye out for a "fender tone" amp ever since I got my G&L. I don't think a fender will ever be my main amp so I'm looking for one that can give a range of tones. So far, the Super-Sonic has the most fender tones in one amp while still being a true tube amp. I was surprised to find the Vintage 30 inside... I expected a 12" Jenson or maybe 2x10s inside. I can't be fair to the Vintage 30 since it wasn't broken in, but when I ran the amp through my 2x12 of Scumback M75s it was no comparison, my 2x12 sounded way better (I had my friend listen too, just to make sure it wasn't my bias!). I wish the vintage mode broke up just a little bit sooner since I had to set the volume to mix with the other guitar/bass/drums and it was just a little too low for the amp. After practice my friend (bless his heart) let me play around for a few more minutes and with the volume bumped a little it sounded significantly better. I could get good tone out of both the bassman and vibrolux modes. My favorite sound was my G&L bridge pickup through a keeley blues driver to the super-sonic in bassman/vintage mode with a little reverb. SUPER good blues tone. I didn't play with the "burn" mode much, I didn't really understand with two gains (didn't read the manual!) and I was more concerned with the clean and light OD tones of the vintage mode. My biggest complaint was the grill cloth and faceplate look. I went online to check prices and found out they make the combo and amp in blonde/oxblood which looks better IMO.

If you're looking for superb bassman or vibrolux tone, get a vintage bassman or vibrolux. If you're looking for solid Fender Tone with a lot of options, this is it! It would also make a great first tube amp with lots of options, especially if you're playing blues, country, or clean sounds. If you're looking for a rock amp, there are probably better ones out there for you. I liked it enough to consider getting one eventually.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

How do you set up your monitor mix?

Sometimes comments turn into a blog post... that's happening here after some comments on Karl's blog. We got to discussing the balance between having a quiet stage volume (monitors and instruments that make noise) but loosing the feel of the music versus having a loud stage volume so you feel it but making the front of house (FOH) sound muddy in the process.

I realized I'm kind of a freak and have learned how to get buy on really bad monitor mixes. Part of that comes from playing in concert bands (band with tubas and flutes, not guitars) where there's no monitors and you just have to listen to the room, and part of it comes from my first experience with monitors which was our college ministry worship band - we had 2 floor wedges (that both had the same mix) for the whole band. In both cases I got used to listening to the room not the monitor, only relying on monitors for things I really need to hear, and trusting that things sound different FOH than they do in my mix.

Listening to the room
At the conference last week I went two sets without anything in my monitor (floor wedge). It was either off or just so low that I couldn't hear it. I could hear the drums because they were right next to me, bass because he had an amp on stage and because he was in the subs, and my amp because it was right next to me. I could hear the worship leader's electric because it was near the stage (behind it) and could hear his vocals and acoustic through the FOH speakers even though they were facing away from me. It wasn't ideal, but I could hear all the pieces... well enough. I couldn't tell you what word the worship leader was singing but I knew the songs and could tell what verse or chorus he was on. Often times I can hear the lead singer in his or her own monitor loud enough that I don't need it in mine. I'm always amazed by how much I can hear from the FOH mix. In fact, it bugs me if FOH is muted for rehearsal because everything sounds a lot different once it's on.

Sometimes monitors actually inhibit our ability to hear things. If I had my own guitar blasting in my monitor I wouldn't have been able to hear anything else around me. If my monitor is really loud I won't be able to hear some of the instruments in the room and I'll have to add them to my mix, making my monitor even louder and possibly covering up some other instrument I would have heard in the room. If I have my monitor really loud it will make it harded for the person next to me to hear what they need to hear in the room or in their monitor too. They'll turn their monitor up, then I can't hear or someone else can't hear and before you know it the stage level is blasting. I've been at places where the sound guy realized this cycle was happening and had to stop rehearsal to start monitor mixes from scratch. Not good.

Only relying on the monitor for things I need to hear
Because I want to hear things onstage and in the room I only add things to my monitor that I can't hear already - namely acoustic, lead vocals, and keys if there are any. If there's a drum shield (or an electric kit for some reason) I might put kick and snare in if I can't hear them well or if I'm only hearing a weird reflection that's out of time. I never put background vocals in my mix and when there are keys I keep them pretty low. I absolutely need to hear the drums for time. If I know the songs I could get by with ONLY hearing drums and my guitar, that's how it goes with tracking a recording some times. Next most important is hearing the vocals so it's easier to keep track of where I am in the song and hear vocal cues if we add a chorus on the fly or some other audible. Next I like a little acoustic since it often starts songs and lets me know I'm on the right chord if I don't know the song well enough. I keep the acoustic pretty low though, that way I can hear it when it starts songs or if there's a break where it keeps playing and I don't. When we're all playing it might get lost in the mix but that's ok, I don't really need it. Next I like bass for the chord changes and for the feel of the song. Sorry background vocals, it's not that I don't like you, it's just that I don't need to hear you and the fewer things I have to listen to, the better I'll hear what I need to hear. If it's getting hard to hear something in the monitor instead of asking for more if it, try turning down other instruments that are covering it up. It doesn't always work, but usually it gives good results. Plus the sound guy will occasionally say something like, "In the 5 years I've been mixing here, you're the first person to ask for something less in his mix. Thank you!!!" Actual quote :)

Trusting that things sound different FOH than they do in my mix
This one is so hard to get used to! It's really important for that balance between feeling it and having a loud stage volume though. I just ran into this yesterday at a wedding I was playing in. Two of us were playing acoustic and the other acoustic was singing too. Once the sound guy did his check and put us in FOH the other acoustic asked me if she should turn down the treble on her guitar because it sounded really bright now. Mine sounded the same, it was because the highs from FOH were bouncing off the back wall of the church and back to us. The mids and low were lost along the way but the walls were bouncing the highs back really well so everything sounded brighter. I'm sure it sounded just fine in the house but on stage it was bright. We could have changed our guitars EQ to sound good to us but it would have been really dull in the house. We just had to trust that it sounded right out there.

The temptation is to have a FOH mix in your monitor so it sounds like your sitting in the house. It's possible, but in my opinion, it will cause your monitor to be too loud and you'll lose clarity of the things you really need to hear. If you listen to the FOH speakers you'll hear the mix... with a bunch of reverb since you're hearing it off walls, but it's there. The point of a monitor is to let you hear what you need to hear. I'm not really sure how it happened, or like I said, maybe I'm just a freak (!) but I can get a feel for the music and dynamics with a really sparse mix. I have noticed, though, that I need to be able to hear the FOH, otherwise it feels really empty.

That brings me to a final point:

How things change for inears
So far I've only been talking about using wedges since the make a lot of stage noise. It's more important to have a quiet wedge than it is to have a quiet inear mix since you're the only one in your ears! With inears I still only put instruments I need to hear in the mix (sorry again BGVs) because it will still make things harder to pick out if you have a lot going on. Since my ears are sealed and I don't hear much of the room, I add bass and drums (usually just kick, snare, and high hat if I can't hear it in the snare mike - no cymbals or toms though). Even with a good inear mix I still lose the feel unless I can hear the room. If there are room mikes then I kiss the sound guy and add a good helping of room mike, if there aren't room mikes I pull on ear out (not all the way, just enough to break the seal so I can still hear the inear too). If the place you play has stereo inear consider yourself truly blessed! I've played with them at a few churches and it's heaven! If this is the case, make sure you pan things left and right. I really helps make things clearer. I usually put vocals, kick, and bass in the center; snare and high hat a little left and right your guitar and the lead guitar further left and right; and keys and whatever else way left and right. It makes it super easy to hear everything! My home church uses stereo inears and while they've had a room mike for a while, they just added STEREO room mikes and panned them left and right in my ear. Oh it was glorious!

Not the only way
That's just my way of doing it! I know good musicians who have other philosophies of setting a mix. What's yours?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Tube change!

I noticed this week my tubes are taking longer to warm up and the low end is flabby. My amp didn't used to sound like this, so my tubes must be dying. I made it 15 months on these and I played a lot, so I guess that's about normal. I didn't change the preamp tubes last time and I'm not sure if the previous owner changed them the last time he changed tubes. I have a record of the date he changed them, but not whether it was power and pre, or just power. Preamp tubes can go a long time without being changed, but I'm saying it's time now.

I'm planning on getting Winged "C"s for the EL34 power tubes and Tung-Sol 12AX7 preamp tubes. I have Winged "C" power tubes right now and I like them. No idea what my current preamp tubes are but I've heard really good things about the Tung-Sols. To you guys that know way more about tubes: does that sound like a good plan?

I'm lucky to have a place called Savage Audio just a few miles from my house. They build amps and repair vintage stuff and do great work. The down side is they have a two week wait to change tubes. Last time I asked if I could be on a list and just bring my amp in when it's time but they said no, the amp has to sit on a shelf for 13 days, 23 hours, and 45 minutes until they get around to changing the tubes and biasing. I'd do it myself but I don't have the equipment for biasing and I don't want to shock myself to death draining capacitors. Plus they guarantee their work and are liable if they blow the amp up or shock themselves to death. I only have the one amp so I'll have to borrow amps here for a couple weeks. Now to find people with nice amps that aren't using them....

Monday, January 5, 2009

The rehearsal pheomina

I've noticed a pattern that seems to happen every week I play at my "home" church. It goes something like this:

Rehearsal (a 45 minute practice right after soundcheck):
- I play timidly as I'm concentrating on listening to the other parts and making sure mine fit in
- I inevitably play a couple absolutely awful, out of key, notes while I'm experimenting/remember what parts I play that make the worship leader look over and smile/laugh at me.
- I start to think I should have practiced more

Run Through (a dress rehearsal with correct lighting and timing between songs):
- At least one transition will be far far faster than I expected and I'll scramble to switch effects fast enough and miss the first measure.
- I'll forget what I part I came up with for part of a song

First Service:
- Everything goes fine. No missed notes, transitions are clean, I remember all my parts and play confidently.

Second Service:
- Everything goes great. Everything is memorized and fun now.

Does anyone else have a similar ritual? Each week it blows my mind that I play so differently between the first rehearsal and the last service. It used to freak me out when I'd play timidly or make mistakes during rehearsal but I've started to realize that this just happens and I'll be fine by the first service. It makes it easier to laugh at myself at rehearsal and think "haha, don't do that next time." instead of "OMG, u suck at guitar." And yes, I think like a 16-year old girl texts for some reason.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Conference #2

There's my setup for the last week or so. I have to say I got pretty spoiled being able to pick up whatever guitar will work best for a song and jumping on the Rhodes whenever I wanted. I got my set list for Church back home on Sunday and I was thinking about which guitar to use on each song... then I realized I'm only going to bring one guitar.

New years eve we played a bunch of cover songs for a dance party - Love shack, Hit me Baby One More Time, Fresh Prince theme, Sweet Home Alabama, etc. Then we did worship tunes at new years. The night was fun. The morning was a different story. We were supposed to play at 9:30am New Years morning after playing the party the night before. Luckily the speaker wanted to go long so we were just going to play one song at the start and the worship leader was going to do a solo acoustic song at the end of the talk. I went to bed late and next thing I knew someone was knocking at the door at 9:15 wondering why we weren't in the conference room. Oops! We threw on some clothes, went down, made sure our instruments worked, and jumped right into "Undignified." Once we were done with our only song I went back to the room and promptly fell back asleep. I can't say for sure, since I don't really remember, but I'm pretty sure I played Undignified in my sleep.