Roundup – High-Tech Guitar

These are incredible times for guitar players.
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These are incredible times for guitar players. Whether your tastes run to a cool PRS, the amazing high-tech offerings from Line 6, Gibson, and Roland, a traditional Strat or Les Paul, or any of the latest creative efforts from companies like Ibanez, you’re covered. Tubes are back if you’re into tubes, analog effects have regained their rightful place alongside multi-effects, amps keep pumping up the volume, MIDI guitar continues to evolve, and amp sims—aided by more powerful computers and more precise algorithms—are reaching new heights in authenticity, tone, and cost-effectiveness.

This roundup takes a look at some of the latest goodies for guitarists, and there are certainly plenty. So keep reading, keep picking, and keep up your quest for the ultimate tone. Given all of the options, you know it’s out there somewhere!

You can’t tell by this picture, but you could probably drop this pedal multiple times, and it would still survive.

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$449 MSRP, $400 street

The Backstory The electric guitarist’s quest is the quest for tone—the elusive quality that ties wood, pickups, strings, amp, and speakers into a cohesive whole. When the electric guitar was born, tubes went along for the ride as they contributed warmth, an emphasis on second-harmonic distortion, and the ability to distort with elegance when you wanted to get gritty.

Then the Great Tube Drought hit, as the world of electronics went solid-state. Products like Tech 21’s SansAmp and Peavey’s TransTube amps showed that it was possible to get pretty tube-y with solid-state, but they also showed there were definite advantages to silicon: portability, stability, consistency, ruggedness, compactness, and energy efficiency. So when Chinese and Russian tubes eventually found their way back into the hands of guitarists, the search continued for a solid-state equivalent—leading to further refinements in existing technologies, DSP-based modeling, amp sims, and now HALO: “Harmonic Amp-Like Overdrive.”

HALO, designed by Alex Aguilar (yes, that Aguilar), is an all-metal—as in construction, not musical genre—dual overdrive pedal that’s designed to put tube sound in your gig bag. It runs off a 9V battery (one of the footswitch LEDs indicates battery strength), but can also run off external DC negative-tip power supplies from 9-18V. The intention is for you to get your overdrive tone in HALO, feed whatever modulation/delay/reverb etc. effects you want, then go into anything— from a clean tube amp to a P.A. system to a solid-state amp—with a tone will sound how you expect it to sound. HALO does that, but the question then becomes whether the sound is that of a “real” tube amp, or at least something with equivalent tone.

The Special Sauce HALO emphasizes the second- and even-order harmonics—a key characteristic of tube distortion—and adds considerable versatility so you can tweak the sound in multiple ways.

HALO consists of two similar overdrives (the second one is designed for "heavier" sounds), which range from clean to super-saturated. A footswitch switches between them (another footswitch performs enable/bypass), so it’s like having a two-channel amp—especially as each overdrive has its own gain and output level controls. A three-position switch chooses among clean boost and two distortion characters: Asymmetrical is dark and complex, while symmetrical has more presence and bite.

A Saturation toggle switches in a stage that follows both overdrive sections, or only the second section (the Saturation stage can also be bypassed), to increase distortion and sustain.

HALO offers several tone-shaping options. The two channels share a Tone knob, which provides treble boost and cut so you can dial in an edge, or mellow it out. Three additional knobs control Bass, Contour, and Presence. Contour is basically a midrange scoop/boost (scooping sounds more modern, while boosting adds more of a vintage beef ); Presence covers the upper mids. These controls provide a wide range of control over the basic HALO qualities— distortion, sustain, and tone.

The Summary $400 street for an overdrive pedal seems excessive—until you put the box through its paces. You’d need to get at least two, and probably more, overdrives to come up with a similar sonic variety. Even then, there’s no guarantee you’d get that sweet, second harmonic-heavy distortion. Besides, it has some nice extras—you can replace the battery without tools, and drive long cables thanks to a low-impedance out.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s a great “feel” and sense of dynamics; your guitar doesn’t get obscured by a sea of sludge, because if anything, HALO enhances your guitar’s definition even while saturating it. In a world that’s not suffering from a shortage of overdrive pedals, HALO is unique.

The Control Room Pro Module is included in the software upgrade.

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Native Instruments

Guitar Rig 5 Pro

$199 MSRP

The Backstory Guitar Rig, which is also part of the Komplete software bundle, was introduced in 2004 and has never ceased evolving over that time. The evolution has led to better, more detailed amp models with each new version, improved convolution technology with the cabinets, more effects, and a cleaner UI.

The Special Sauce Version 5 marks a major change in Guitar Rig Pro—it’s now positioned not just for guitar, but as a general-purpose signal processing rack. NI has introduced several optional-at-extra-cost modules designed specifically for studio applications (although of course, they can be used with guitar), and created Guitar Rig Player, a free host version that lets you can run these modules without having to buy the full Guitar Rig Pro program. However, even the free version includes several useful modules: “Jump” amp and cabinet, Skreamer distortion, chorus/ flanger, reverb, delay, parallel delays, parametric EQ, lowpass synth filter, This screen shot displays the scope of modules available in Guitar Rig 5 Pro. limiter, volume control, compressor, and noise reduction. It offers multiple modulation options—LFO, envelope, step sequencer, analog sequencer, and envelope follower. It even includes “utilities” like split to create parallel signal paths, crossover, and “container”—very much like Reason’s Combinator, or Sonar’s FX Chains. Given that the Player is free and has no performance limitations, I can’t think of any reason not to download it.

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Meanwhile, Guitar Rig 5 Pro itself has several new components. The two new amps, Van 51 and Hot Solo+, demonstrate that NI’s emulation chops continue to produce evermore realistic results; the Container module is ideal when you use particular combinations of effects, and don’t want to load and set them all individually. It also lets you bring particular parameters to front-panel controls, which of course can also be driven via external MIDI controllers.

Version 5 features six new effects, including an improved Control Room that provides up to eight virtual cabinets, mics, and miking positions. The other effects provide some unusual options like Resochord (resonant delays that recall NI’s Spektral Delay plug-in), Filterbank, Little Reflektor (a more CPU-friendly version of the included Reflektor reverb), Stereo Tune (an imaging/spreading plug-in), Vintage Verb, and Fast Comp—this is particularly useful for clamping peaks when driving distortion.

The Summary If you liked Guitar Rig before, Guitar Rig 5 Pro adds goodies, presets, and flexibility to run other, studio-oriented plug-ins. (Note these will not work outside the GR host.) I’m particularly impressed with running the new amps through the Control Room Pro module, which lets you create meaty, versatile, and especially, rich tones. If you haven’t checked out Guitar Rig yet, download the free Player version to get a taste . . . if you like what you hear, the Pro version delivers a whole lot more.

The middle rack section is new in version 2.0; the upgrade has numerous other tweaks, particularly to the presets.

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Scuffham Amps

S-Gear 2.0
$75 MSRP

The Backstory In last year’s high-tech guitar roundup, I reviewed Scuffham Amps’ S-Gear (from the designer behind Marshall’s JMP-1 amp) debut amp sim, and closed the review with “This is one dark horse that I predict will still be around for next year’s roundup.” And they were kind enough to make me look prescient!

S-Gear 2.0 is now available for Mac (stand-alone and AU) as well as Windows (stand-alone and VST). Compared to last year, it’s a true 64-bit plug-in for Windows, although of course, you can still install it as a 32-bit plug. While it’s hard for any new amp sim to gain traction, Scuffham has amassed a vocal following from those who appreciate the ease of use, low price, and authentic, “recording-ready” tone.

The Special Sauce Version 2.0 introduces a rack with removable modules you can drag-and-drop into whatever order you want. The original version’s Delay Thing and Pro Convolver have been joined by Mod Thing, a straight-ahead Chorus/Flanger—like the Delay, it has an unusually musical tone to it. Rumor has it a reverb is next, so clearly, Scuffham plans to continue to develop the effects aspect of S-Gear.

The Summary There’s not much to add to last year’s review. A free trial version is still available—good move, because you won’t grasp how good this sounds, particularly in terms of dynamic response and lack of “brittleness,” until you try it yourself. Also, the presets deserve props. You don’t need to be a tweaker to use S-Gear 2.0; just dial up presets until you find something you like— and it probably won’t take many presets before you do.

Even if you already have a favorite amp sim, given its low cost and quality sound, S-Gear 2.0 adds some wonderful options to your virtual collection of amps and effects. Download the free trial, install it, and see what you think. Frankly, I continue to be impressed with S-Gear, and Version 2 hints of even more to come.

It looks like a game controller—and it could be. But its “secret identity” is as a stealth MIDI guitar controller.

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You Rock Guitar
$229 MSRP, $139 street

The Backstory What is this, some kind of joke? The YRG-1000 looks like a toy that’s auditioning for Guitar Hero. Yet for accessing MIDI synthesizers while using guitar techniques and voicings, it’s not only inexpensive, it’s surprisingly accurate—but only when tweaked properly, which is crucial.

The Special Sauce The neck’s “frets” and “strings” are raised plastic, although they do feel quite comfortable and string-like. As there’s no need to detect string pitch, there’s no significant latency. To trigger the notes, you pluck six short, “real” strings; you can’t bend string pitch or do natural vibrato, but there’s a vibrato tailpiece that’s a guitarist’s version of a keyboard synth’s pitchbend wheel, and a joystick that fulfills the function of a synth’s mod wheel.

It sounds simple enough, but if you check out user comments on the web, you’ll find everything from “it sucks” to “this is incredible.” Why the disparity? Although some people just won’t be able to get past the fact that it’s not really a guitar, there’s more to it than that. The YRG is quite sophisticated, and there are multiple adjustments that let you customize the response to your playing style. As a result, sorry— you’re going to have to read the manual. It’ll take you an hour or two of trial-and-error to get these settings right, but editing them properly can make the difference between frustrating triggering problems and near-perfect response. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of getting these tweaks right, but once they’re set, you won’t need to adjust them again.

Another important element is setting up your external synthesizer, whether soft synth or hardware tone module (the YRG can output MIDI over USB—ideal for computers, and also powers the guitar so you don’t have to use the four AA internal batteries—or a standard 5-pin DIN connector for triggering hardware synthesizers). YRG has four Mono mode presets, where each string transmits over its own MIDI channel. These can be channels 1–6 or 7–12, or the reverse (i.e., channel 1 or channel 7 can be either the first or sixth string).

There are two mono mode advantages. First, you can assign a separate synthesizer sound to each string, like bass for the lower strings, and piano for the upper strings. Second, if you can restrict each sound to allow only one note at a time (like a real guitar string, but not all synths let you do this), the result is a more guitar-like feel and better tracking.

The limitation of YRG’s Mono mode is that the virtual whammy bar doesn’t send pitchbend data over all six channels at once, although hopefully a planned firmware update will address this. But as YRG can save presets, you can create some Mono mode presets for instruments like piano, vibes, and pads where you tend to play chords without bending, then create other presets that send all data over channel 1 (with pitchbend messages) for solo instruments like wind, brass, and the like where pitch-bending is an important part of the playing style.

Also note that because the “frets” and “strings” are essentially switches, the YRG- 1000 is ideal for tapping techniques. I don’t just mean EVH-style tapping, as you can trigger drum parts and the like. There are adjustments for optimizing this as well.

The Summary If you’re into MIDI guitar— or want to be—the YRG-1000 occupies the sweet spot between affordability and accuracy. No, it’s not a guitar, and yes, you might get a few snickers when you strap it on. But if there’s an easier way to get into triggering MIDI instruments with guitar-like technique, I’m not aware of it—and no one else seems to be, either.

Breaking news: Gen 2 firmware is slated to be available this month. Features include tracking and playability improvements, improved onboard sound library with new samples and presets (I didn’t mention that previously because in the original version, it’s not a compelling reason to get into the YRG), layering and zoning of sounds, monophonic synth mode, improved slides, better pickup design, and the top seven frets on all strings can be configured as Ableton or DAW control surface switches.

The JTV-59, which follows the Les Paul paradigm, is one of six James Tyler Variax models.

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Line 6

Dream Rig

JTV-59 James Tyler Variax
$1,399.99 MSRP, $1,000 street

DT25 Amp
$2,099.99 MSRP, $1,500 street
$699.99 MSRP, $500 street

The Backstory This isn’t a “Dream Rig” because 1+1+1 = 3. With Line 6’s system-oriented approach, it’s more like 1+1+1 = 6. The Variax talks to the POD HD500, which in turns talks to the DT25 amp; and with Line 6 Link capabilities, the POD HD500 can talk to more than just the DT. Although this review covers the JTV-59 Variax, DT25 amp, and HD500, variations on the Dream Rig theme include five other Variax models, as well as the heftier DT50 amp and POD HD300 or HD400.

The Special Sauce, Part 1 The original Variax got high marks for technology, but the relaunch under James Tyler’s imprimatur signifies an emphasis on the guitar itself. There are six models; three standard series guitars range from $1,500 to $1,300 (street). The most costly model is the $1,500 single-cutaway/dual-humbucker

The POD HD500 doesn’t just update the sound quality, but combines both stage and studio orientations. JTV-59 (which follows the Les Paul paradigm), followed by the $1,400 Strat-like JTV-69 (vibrato tailpiece, bolt-on heck, and 25-1/2" scale length), and finally the JTV-89 ($1,300), which features tuners in a reversed six-in-line design, two humbuckers, 25-1/2" scale length, and 24 frets. The custom-shop guitars are made in the USA and are more than twice as expensive as the standard series models. They’re fantastic guitars, but frankly, the less expensive models are finely-crafted, highly playable, and definitely do justice to the electronics.

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These guitars also up the ante for innovation. They offer 28 onboard guitar emulations: 18 vintage types (Les Paul, ES-335, Strat, Tele, Rick, Gretsch, etc.), five acoustic models (which were updated even while I was writing this review) including two 12-strings, and five “none-of-the- above”—Coral sitar, banjo, Danelectro with Lipstick pickups, Tricone resonator, and Dobro. Eleven alternate tunings are instantly accessible; you have the option to make your own, as well as customize the selection of sounds and tunings (e.g., you can create a bank with five Rickenbacker 360 12-strings, each with an alternate tuning). The excellent Variax Workbench software—basically, a virtual custom shop that lets you change pickups and electronics sans soldering iron and swap out neck and body without a woodshop—is still a part of the package.

The DT25 amp achieves multiple characters—not through digital modeling, but via clever analog circuitry changes. Unlike the original Variax, the James Tyler models have standard pickups and can work as regular electric guitars that do not require batteries. Bottom line: You played the original Variax because that was the only way to get the technology; you play the new Variax because you like to play it.

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The Special Sauce, Part 2 Although HD technology represented a significant upgrade over the original POD, there’s more to the POD HD500. It has the look and feel (and rugged construction, including the footpedal) of stage gear, but also includes studio-friendly extras, including S/PDIF out that can be used for recording the processed signal or a direct, digital dry connection to your DAW, which is ideal for re-amping—while you do zero-latency monitoring of the HD500’s processed sound. You’ll also find USB 2.0, editing software with POD Farm 2's graphic look (but of course, not its audio editing capabilities) at its core, a digital Variax input, and the L6 Link option. (More on that later.)

The effects loop can drive guitar- or line-level processors, and three “trim switches” accommodate various interfacing scenarios—guitar input pad on/off, XLR ground lift or normal, and 1/4" output, switchable between line and amp level. Two parallel effects chains can provide separate amps and cabs for the left and right channels; compared to earlier PODs, the modeling is more detailed, and the breakup from dry to distorted is smoother and more gradated.

The companion software is a straightforward editor/librarian that greatly simplifies patch creation and storage, but it can remain active while recording so you can tweak and record without having to open and close programs.

Two cautions: First, the knobs are hard to tweak without obscuring the display, although you’ll likely use the editing software for any serious programming. Second, many presets seem intended to impress on the music store floor—stripping a preset down to amp with a carefully selected cabinet and mic, along with maybe EQ and one other effect, often produced more “musical” results for me. Remember that it’s highly unlikely that the presets were programmed with someone who uses the same setup as you—I usually need to pull back on the drive, because I use heavier- gauge strings and a thumbpick. A little tweaking can make the difference between a preset that you’d pass by, or one that sounds phenomenal for your style.

The Special Sauce, Part 3 The 1x12 DT25, co-designed with Bogner, breaks the tube amp paradigm. Traditional amps have one character, and you can change the sound within the limits of that character—but the DT25 lets you change the amp’s essential character itself. It has two footswitchable channels with traditional controls, but you can also tailor the voicing/feedback topology in four ways ways (American Clean, British Crunch, Class A Chime, or Modern High-Gain), choose Class A (10W) or Class AB (25W) operation, and select pentode or triode tube characteristics. I/O includes a transformer-coupled direct out with cabinet simulation, effects loop, a “low volume” mode that preserves tone at lower levels, MIDI, and the L6 Link.

Overall, this is a wonderful amp (especially for recording), not just because it sounds good, but because it offers so many different sonic characters. Just as the Variax emulates different guitar sounds, the DT25 can emulate different amp sounds. But that’s not the coup de grâce. . . .

The Special Sauce, Part 4 The synergy is the big deal. Because the HD500 has a Variax input, you can store the Variax settings with a preset . . . or not. The L6 Link allows for bidirectional control and one-way digital audio, and communication between the HD500 and up to four DT-family amps using a single XLR cable (up to about 20 feet, but longer with an AES/EBU cable). For example, if you call up a particular amp model on the HD500, the DT amp automatically reconfigures itself in the analog domain to reflect the characteristics of the chosen amp. Seriously. You can save amp settings in an HD500 preset, place the HD500 within the DT25 effects loop, tweak settings on the HD500 with the DT25 updating automatically (or vice-versa), or edit an HD500 preset by turning the DT25’s knobs. You can even process the magnetic pickup and Variax outputs separately within the HD500, and blend them in real time with a footpedal and/or the Variax tone knob.

Really, the “dream” aspect of the dream rig has two components. The first is the ability to achieve a near-infinite variety of tones that include modeled guitar, standard pickups, modeled amps, real amps, DSP, tubes . . . you name it. If only I’d had this when I was doing studio work back in the ’70s, I could have taken over the world.

The second component is convenience. If you had to swap guitars to use an alternate tuning, or avoided alternate tunings because of the inconvenience, now they’re just a rotary-switch click or so away. Ditto for loading in sounds and tunings so you can step through them during a performance, and unifying Variax, DT25, and HD500 settings into a single POD HD500 preset.

Sure, the individual components are exceptional. But put them all together, and you have . . . well, a dream rig.