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Opening up to open mic

Michael Brown faces his fear and goes it alone in front of an oblivious audience…

I’ve never been able to just pick up a microphone and sing. It’s a level of confidence that has eluded me, and no amount of singing lessons or live performances with numerous bands has changed that. So to play an open mic night, alone and unaccompanied, has long been my idea of fear itself, yet here I was, onstage, poised to open my mouth.

Despite my ill-advised attempt, open mic is alive and well, even though 2011 saw pop albums outsell rock records for the first time in seven years. In fact, with the new Live Music Bill receiving Royal Assent and Open Mic UK competition reaching 10,000 participants per year, open mic nights look set to only grow in popularity.

Stepping into the spotlight

If I was to truly label myself a musician and a journalist, I had to investigate this phenomenon. However, in order to minimise my nervousness and avoid offending too many eardrums, I also had to play an incredibly cunning game. As I entered The North Star pub, the unlucky recipient of my acoustic set, I quietly observed the situation. My surroundings were elegantly decorated, spacious and unnervingly well lit: hardly suitable for an onstage emotional disembowelling.

To get the insider info, I sought out Anthony Lee Wickham, the evening’s organiser and performer in his own right, and struck up a conversation. When asked about the evening’s popularity, Anthony informed me that, while Christmas had been incredibly busy, things had been fairly quiet this year. Apparently, however, the night did tend to pick up at 10 o’clock. Would I like to wait for a larger audience? “Oh,” I replied, casually. “I’m sure I’ll be finished before then.”

Onstage and alone

Considering the intense nerves I was experiencing, I wondered why Anthony thought performers and audiences still flocked to open mic nights. “It’s the heartbeat of any musical scene,” he said. “If anyone wants to join a band or get gigs, it’s a great networking system.”

I didn’t want to join a band. I already play guitar in a trio and, following some heated debates, no longer provide vocal accompaniment. This history, combined with weeks of apprehension, undoubtedly contributed to my feelings of pure, unadulterated fear.

Fortunately, I had formulated a game plan. Anthony would go on first to warm up the stage, and I would follow in the enviable second place slot. Unfortunately, my organiser friend turned out to be pretty bloody impressive, his feelgood medley of Bill Withers’s Lovely Day into Estelle’s American Boy providing a level of entertainment my 90s acoustic dirges could never hope to match.

Still, Anthony had left the stage: this was my moment. Grabbing my battered acoustic guitar, I clambered onto the platform and tuned up. While the stage was in the centre of the pub, its position was such that none of the surrounding tables faced the performer. Combine this with the apparently endlessly engaging conversations being held around me and I was feeling pretty confident. Confident that if I made a mistake, nobody would notice and, if they did, they simply wouldn’t care.

Like my picking hand, the open mic experience was a bit of a blur

Sitting in that chair, time seemed to stand still, although I’m not entirely sure whether anybody was watching during this period as I spent most of it with eyes tightly shut behind glasses. My set consisted of one original and three covers, all of which I’d practised religiously, much to my housemates’ annoyance. Yet, despite my hard work, a number of things went wrong. So, in reflecting on my experience, I have devised three open mic tips, compiled from memories of the evening and a recording made in a fit of masochistic archival madness.

1. Introduce yourself

I kept very quiet during my set, only apologising for playing depressing material and awkwardly blurting out “thank you” before anyone was even aware I’d finished a song. In all the excitement I forgot to mention my name, which I feel would have endeared me to the audience and resulted in a wider appreciation of my music. Maybe. Instead, I received a rally of support from Anthony as I stumbled offstage. “Give it up for Michael; that was his first open mic!” he whooped. Cue another round of muted applause.

2. Don’t forget the first line of your opening song

At ease and relieved post-performance

Although I found learning lyrics one of the more difficult aspects of the open mic process, I felt confident that, having chosen songs with repetitive or simple rhymes, the words would leap into my head just before I opened my mouth. This did not happen. The opening vocal of Alice in Chains’s Nutshell may be an elongated “ooh”, yes, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what came next. In hindsight, I don’t think singing “mah-boom-pa-ta-LIES” made for a good first impression.

3. Alcohol helps with nerves… but not with vocals

I’ve never been one to sing the praises of alcohol in any shape or form, merely viewing it as a way of facilitating otherwise awkward conversation. However, when it came to getting up onstage and singing in public, I think a couple of pints helped tremendously, but may have also contributed to my oft-flattened vocals.


An audible record of my own composition, CTO, recorded right in the heart of the action (i.e. in amongst the highly conversational audience)

Once my set had been forgotten, I attempted to glean some perspectives from other open mic warriors. “It’s a performance opportunity really,” said middle-aged ukulele whiz Nick Canham. “You only get better if you keep performing, and this is the perfect way to do that.” Meanwhile, a young man who called himself “The Skunk-Boy Project” had this to share. “It’s great to play a set where you don’t feel much pressure,” he explained. “I love playing whether people are listening or not.”

Maybe after facing my fear, I too could relate to this sentiment. Certainly, there was a post-set buzz, but this was more likely due to immense relief rather than self-satisfaction. Would I do it again? Perhaps. The vocal barrier has been broken and that feeling of relief was not unpleasant. But, for now, I think I love playing more when nobody’s listening: the indifference is truly liberating.

Gear Acquisition Syndrome and Me

Although my blog posts are few and far between (usually during a rare lull in writing/university/band activities), it suddenly struck me that I’d never done a full-length piece on an affliction which affects the majority of guitarists: Gear Acquisition Syndrome, often shortened to G.A.S. The term, or so the legend goes, was originally coined by Walter Becker of Steely Dan in a 1996 article for Guitar Player magazine. His original definition described an insatiable need to acquire more and more guitars, all of which sound essentially the same but feature marginal technical alterations so as to render them desirable, hence the original acronym Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. Over the years the virus has spread and now affects all manner of instrumentalists, as well as the possession of all possible aspects of gear.

Aside from the financial strife induced by the condition, the least desirable characteristic of G.A.S. is the lack of actual playing, songwriting and practice which occurs as a result of trying out so much new gear. And with the renaissance of the YouTube gear demo, bolstered by the likes of ProGuitarShop, the temptation to purchase and subsequently test a new product with your own rig can often be far too much to bear. Of course, whatever ends up being acquired is often quickly sold on as it doesn’t quite “gel” with any number of factors (guitar, pedals, amp, playing style, colour scheme etc.). This leads to a constant desire to achieve that “perfect” rig, a state of acceptance where you, as a player, are happy with your sound and what it says about you.

ProGuitarShop: dangerous for your bank balance and time-keeping abilities.

 

G.A.S. affects people in different ways. Personally, I reached a stage where I was satisfied with my guitar and amp some time ago, although this is more likely due to my notoriously cheap-skateish nature rather than a divine sense of contentment. No, my vice lies with effects pedals, as anyone who’s seen my pedalboard will testify. I don’t even buy anything particularly expensive; there are some absolute bargains scattered across my collection. However, to obtain these great deals, as well as research what makes the pedals themselves any good, I have spent countless hours scouring the ‘net, whether that be Google, eBay or the Harmony Central Effects Forum, the latter of which providing the biggest G.A.S. injection of all (no sniggering at the back please).

In addition to the somewhat localised nature of my G.A.S., it tends to strike only at particular times. Boredom is an obvious catalyst, as is listening to new bands and wanting to, ahem, “borrow” a few of their aural tricks. However, if I want, and I mean really want something, I will somehow manage to incorporate that particular sound into a new song, before I even have said sound in my arsenal. The tone I’ve conjured in my head will be so indispensable to the composition that I simply won’t be able to play the next gig without it, or so I tell myself. This has resulted in audience members commenting that they can’t take their eyes off my feet as I tap-dance my way through myriad different noises. My response is that the actual guitar playing doesn’t bother me so much any more; my main worry onstage is coordinating my feet so as not to fall over when switching pedals on and off.

My pedalboard: great sounds, but a logistical nightmare to navigate.

 

Still, considering the relative cheapness of my addiction, I don’t have that much to complain about; I’m not blowing my cash on vintage Les Pauls every month, partly because I’m a poor student and partly because I’m more of a Strat man myself. And, true, some aspects of my ‘board have stayed fairly constant over the years (despite buying a number of potential “replacements” which subsequently failed to stand up to their predecessors). But still, there exists that sense of utter frustration when you buy one thing to replace another thing only to discover that there was really nothing wrong with the original thing. By all means, I can simply sell the new pedal (in this case) and keep the old one but that means more time spent on eBay, more lost parcels courtesy of the Royal Mail and, ultimately, less playing time.

It’s for these very reasons that I admire players like Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello; now there’s a man who has steadfastly, perhaps even stubbornly, stuck to his gear-based guns and kept the same amp and almost the same pedal setup for nigh-on twenty years. Then again, I’ve hardly been complimentary of Morello’s actual songwriting in the last ten of those twenty years (see, for example, my review of third solo album World Wide Rebel Songs) so perhaps keeping his rig the same has limited his creativity in the process. Hmm.

Tom Morello: keeping it simple.

 

Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for that kind of approach and I believe that all G.A.S. sufferers could learn a little from Morello’s anti-consumerist philosophy. After all, undisputed guitar god Joe Satriani, despite a gargantuan range of signature products, has famously said that “tone is in the fingers, effects just do the colo[u]ring”; nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the closing video clip below, where Satriani plays 80s classic ‘Surfing with the Alien’ through a guitar, pedal and amp combo that couldn’t cost more than a couple of hundred pounds, yet sounds almost indistinguishable from his thousand dollar rig. And if that doesn’t make G.A.S. sufferers shut down the computer and pick up the guitar, I don’t know what will.

Marshall Echohead Review

That there are so many different delay pedals on the market demonstrates not only the effect’s popularity, but also its supreme influence on modern music. With such a wealth of options available to guitarists it’s easy to overlook any number of underrated gems, something that is certainly the case with the Echohead, one of the standout products in Marshall Amplication’s most recent foray into the stompbox arena. First released in 2002, the Echohead has never achieved the same kind of fanfare that has greeted similar offerings from Boss and Digitech, although it has been developing a steady following thanks to its low price, particularly on the used market. Faced with an unending deluge of new delay units, can the Echohead still hold its head above an ocean of competitors?

On The Surface

Whatever you think of Marshall’s pedal design, there’s no denying its sleekness. In fact, most everything about the Echohead screams quality; whether it’s the unit’s comforting weight, the sturdy metal jacks or the recessed metal knobs, the pedal’s build quality belies its Chinese origin. And while the on-off switch feels suspiciously light to the touch, it still gives a satisfying click upon operation. In fact, if there are any complaints to be had, they lie with the robust, yet much-maligned, control knobs, as their thin black setting markers fail to show up under harsh lighting. Indeed, Marshall would be advised to cut back on the shine factor as users may end up feeling their way if their live set requires a lot of delay tweaks.

Feature-wise, there’s a lot on offer: external tap tempo, up to 2 seconds of delay time and six usable, and not so usable, delay modes (hifi, analogue, tape echo, multi tap, reverse and mod filter). In fact, this advanced feature set may account for the pedal’s fairly high current draw (80mA), so try to avoid using batteries: they’re unlikely to last more than an hour or two.

The Echohead still has plenty more tricks hidden beneath that space-age exterior. For one, it not only works in stereo but also provides two options for mono outputs: a passive bypass or a high-quality buffered bypass with trails. The former doesn’t offer the much sought-after “true bypass” but is a useful option if your ‘board is already overrun with buffers or if you simply don’t want your delay to continue when you turn the pedal off, as is the case with the buffered trails option. The pedal also features a true analogue signal path, ensuring that both your delayed and non-delayed tone will remain the same, without the audio path crumbling under the weight of those evil digital converters. Sure, there may be no looper function or stereo inputs but for a digital delay of this build quality at this price point and with external tap tempo, their exclusion is understandable.

Sounds

As an obvious starting point, the Echohead’s default digital setting, or “hifi” as it’s labelled on the pedal, is faithful to the original input signal but without the harshness associated with, say, Boss’ recent efforts. In this respect, it melds well with the guitar’s tone, ensuring that the effect is present but without ever dominating what the guitar is actually playing. Indeed, anyone looking for a delay to mask their mistakes might want to look elsewhere, although the Echohead makes a good job of texture-thickening on spacious riffs.

In terms of retro appeal, the analogue setting (note the uncompromisingly British spelling) further supports the Echohead’s claim as a background effect. While it may not be quite as faithful as other compact digital offerings, it works well to add a subtle ambience without muddying a distorted tone. Similarly, the tape echo mode adds a pleasing “flutter” and degradation to its repeats and is capable of anything from slapback to psychedelica. Looking back, it’s a shame Marshall never expanded upon this pedal range because, with a few extra controls, the Echohead’s tape mode could have been a real force to be reckoned with in the modern tape echo simulation stakes.

The pedal’s last three settings are where things start to get a little weird. The reverse mode, in particular, is probably the least usable of all, but the same can be said about its inclusion in the majority of other delays. In a time of need reversing a melody can serve as an impetus for songwriting but don’t expect to use it too often. Similarly, mod filter may be a bit too wacky for some tastes as it adds a uni-vibe-esque swirl to the repeats, something which can be a tad overbearing in more subtle moments; more usable would have been a chorus or vibrato effect setting, along the lines of the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man.

More usable is the multi tap setting, which allows for some interesting rhythmic interplay ala The Edge or for more subtle cascading delays, as seen in Joe Satriani’s staggered delay use in live settings. Again, this isn’t likely to form your bread-and-butter, all-purpose setting but it’s always fun to have additional options, particularly when recording. Another interesting quirk is that the Echohead will repeat forever when the feedback is set to full and, if the trails output is used, the pedal will repeat indefinitely when off. While this can be useful for songwriting, it also means that the pedal won’t self-oscillate so if you’re an aspiring spaceship pilot, this may not be the delay for you.

Overall

Even in today’s oversaturated delay market, the Marshall Echohead can still fight its corner. The sheer quality of the sounds on offer, as well as the construction of the unit itself, means that, at least as a basic external-tap-tempo-equipped delay (one of very few at this price point), the Echohead is an option to be considered. However, some of the mode choices are a tad overambitious and more controllable parameters are required to make them truly useful in an everyday setting; a few tweaks here and there and Marshall would have an unquestionable winner on their hands, particularly if they include a looping function to compete with some of delay’s big boys. Still, any quibbles about functionality are easily dispelled by the Echohead’s ease of use and pristine sound quality, making this an ideal entry-level or secondary delay on your pedalboard.

How to Make Instrumental Rock Work

We’ve all been there: you’ve found yourself a killer bassist, a raucous drummer and, perhaps, a fellow guitarist wingman or keyboard wizard. At this point there arises the inevitable question of a singer, soon followed by an ill-fated series of personal ads, band equivalents of online dating and a few misguided attempts from the drummer, all of which can all prove fruitless and disheartening.

Still, there’s no reason to stop recording and gigging just because no-one’s opening their mouth onstage. A whole host of successful acts function just fine without a vocalist and, in many cases, sound all the better for it. Without a singer getting in the way there’s more room for riffs, melodies and rhythms from each and every band member, plus there’s no risk of cancelling a gig just because one of you has a cold.

With the recent surge of UK and US instrumental talent, not to mention resurgence of a number of decades-old acts, it seems timely to provide a guide on how to make instrumental rock work for both the listener and the musician. Some of these tips require equipment, some need specific skills, while others just offer a new way of looking at existing approaches. With each nugget of wisdom comes a recommended track from well-established and upcoming instrumental acts, providing a demonstration of the advice in context and allowing you to learn how to best use it in your own music.

So, here are ten ways to make instrumental rock work…

 

Dynamics

Dynamics are, in short, the most important aspect of instrumental music. Try dropping instruments in and out, developing the parts other members are playing and judging when to quieten down and for how long, if, of course, you can get the drummer to ease off on the crash cymbal. An essential part of instrumental dynamics is being able to easily switch from a clean, or lightly-overdriven, tone to full-on distortion, whether this is achieved through a channel-switching amp or standalone distortion pedals. It’s these sharp dynamic contrasts which make it possible for a single riff to last as long as twenty minutes, as seen in a number of recordings from instrumental pioneers Mogwai.

Recommended listening: Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan

 

Tremolo picking

Following from the previous step is tremolo picking, one of the trademarks of “post-rock” and its almost orchestral take on guitar music. Limber up your picking hand because considerable stamina is required in order to perform the rapid-speed octave melodies which typify the genre. You’ll soon find that tremolo picking a guitar line can bring a certain raw, physical intensity that can’t quite be captured by simply sustaining notes.

Recommended listening: Explosions in the Sky – The Birth and Death of the Day

 

Atmospherics

Along with distortion, delay and reverb comprise the two most important weapons in the instrumental guitarist’s arsenal. Without a singer to pad out the mix, delay and reverb can help to thicken textures and create a sense of atmosphere akin to the ways in which a film score heightens the calm or chaos on-screen. Delay is particularly effectively in both quiet, clean picking sections as well as all-out tremolo picking destruction. Be careful with reverb in live settings however as, in combination with the venue’s natural reverb, it can result in a muddy, indistinct guitar tone.

Recommended listening: Mogwai – New Paths to Helicon Pt. I

 

Open string hammer-ons and pull-offs

While it may not be one of the most recognisable aspects of “post-rock” or its accompanying genres, this technique has been put to great use in a number of compositions by Northern Irish instrumentalists And So I Watch You From Afar. Alternating between higher frets and their respective open strings helps to expand a band’s live sound, especially if you’re the lone guitarist in the group, as you’re able to cover both the mids and the highs almost simultaneously.

Recommended listening: And So I Watch You From Afar – Gang (Starting Never Stopping)

 

Octave pedals

Another, less technique-orientated, method of orchestrating your sound is to make use of octavers and pitch-shifting pedals. These can help to make one guitar sound like several guitars, while octave-up shifts can help to occupy the space where the audience might expect to hear a singer or additional harmonies.

Recommended listening: And So I Watch You From Afar – Search:Party:Animal

 

Tapping

Again, if you’re looking to create a multi-layered, almost polyphonic wall of sound from a single guitar, tapping is another way to achieve this. We aren’t talking Van Halen-esque solos here though; instead, ease off on the distortion and try fretting a chord with your left hand while tapping a melody with your right (don’t forget to reverse these instructions if you’re a leftie). A compressor may be required in order for every note to sound clean and even but, with practise, this technique creates an intricate, almost percussive, feel.

Recommended listening: Talons – In the Shadows of Our Stilted Homes

 

Looping/samples

If you’re worried about the live performance of your studio masterpiece and how to replicate all those synths, horns and string quartets, consider the use of samples or, if you’ve indulged in a number of guitar overdubs, looping. As long as the drummer’s working to a click track, there’s no risk of going out of time and your audience gets to experience the track as it was intended, with the added bonus of the band rocking out onstage. Even if you didn’t feature any additional instruments, why not find some appropriate samples to add a human element to proceedings? Leicester four-piece Maybeshewill often feature speeches from their favourite movies, as well as synth overdubs, at their live gigs, further developing their already epic sound.

Recommended listening: Maybeshewill – Not For Want Of Trying

 

Slow it down

You’ve got a killer riff and the rhythm section’s locked in but your song still doesn’t quite convey the feeling you intended. Never be afraid to slow it down. While this can sometimes border on ambient styles (a line many instrumental acts often tread), the apocalyptic sensations it instils in the audience will more than make up for an extended running time. Try combining with reverb and delay to create a colossal, unending wall of sound.

Recommended listening: This Will Destroy You – Communal Blood

 

Timing

If your band’s tighter than a pair of Topman skinny jeans, consider some off-the-wall and unpredictable timing shifts. Not only will it display your technical expertise and musical know-how but also give the impression of a band who is dangerous and unhinged, ready to break free of its musical confines at any moment. Either that or you’ll come across as a bit nerdy: there’s a genre called “math rock” for a reason! When writing, try to imagine where to take the song next and sing the rhythm and melody lines before attempting to transpose to the guitar.

Recommended listening: Three Trapped Tigers – Cramm

 

Song titles

The best part about having no lyrics is that there are no boundaries when it comes to song titles, so use your imagination. You want to write about that hilarious incident that happened to your drunken friend last week? Do it! Seen a catchy slogan or found two random words which just sound right together? Make good use of them. Scottish quintet Mogwai took a number of song titles for second album Come On Die Young from National Enquirer headlines so the sky’s the limit!

Recommended listening: Mogwai – You’re Lionel Richie

Interview: Japanese Voyeurs

One of 2011’s bands to watch, Japanese Voyeurs have already received considerable coverage from the likes of Rock Sound, even before the release of debut album Yolk. Michael Brown caught up with the London-based rockers ahead of their headlining gig at Clwb Ifor Bach to ask a few questions…


You were recently on the Rock Sound Exposure tour with Dinosaur Pile-Up and the Xcerts; how was that? Was there ever any rivalry with the revolving headliner concept?

Steve Wilson [drums]: Not at all, it was brilliant. They’re really good friends of ours anyway; it was a lovely reunion.

Romily Alice [vocals/guitar]: The revolving headliner thing was good because people tended to stay and watch all the bands. There were a couple of nights where one band drew a big crowd for no apparent reason and everyone came to see one of us but most of the time everyone was pretty keen on seeing everyone.

 

The majority of the press liken you to the 1990s grunge scene; is that a fair comparison?

SW: We’re obviously into all those bands but you just get labelled with the bloody grunge revivalist thing.

Tom Lamb [guitar]: Grunge metal. We’ll take grunge metal.

RA: There’s other stuff as well.

 

Who would you say are your main influences then?

RA: We like grunge bands that are heavier: Tool is one of my favourite bands and then bands like Melvins don’t really fit in with grunge in the sense that they’re a lot doomier. We love that kind of thing. We’re big fans of Down and Pantera too. Anyone for any more?

Johnny Seymour [bass]: We’re trying to think of the other side, the lighter side.

RA: Beyoncé. (laughs)

SW: Mogwai: they’re one of my favourite bands of all time. Bands like Dillinger Escape Plan as well, things like that. Between us we’ve got quite a range.

RA: There are a lot of bands that I like, but I don’t know if I’m influenced by them; I don’t know if they come out in the music.

 

Romily, who are your influences vocally?

RA: Lyrically, I think what Buzz from the Melvins does is amazing: it’s literally this assortment of awesome images that seem to make no logical sense. Sound-wise, I don’t really know. I guess David Yow from The Jesus Lizard; I love his rawness. I guess those two are my favourites.

 

The 1990s had clear musical trends; do you think there’s a definable music scene at the moment?

TL: There’s lots of stuff like MGMT but I don’t really know what it is.

JS: There’s that new type of metal. When you usually think of metal, you think of Metallica and loud, hairy men but now there’s loads of hair-straightened, sexy young men like Oli Sykes [Bring Me The Horizon frontman]. (laughs)

RA: It can be quite hard to find more modern bands that you like but through touring and searching about we’ve ended up finding a bunch of newer bands. There’s this one band called Dopefight; we saw them play and they were incredible and I’d never heard of them. It’s just three guys and their album sleeve is a picture of buds and the back cover is Chinese takeaway!

 

Considering his pedigree with the likes of Rage Against The Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Melvins, what was it like working with Garth Richardson on your debut album?

SW: He’s one of the nicest guys we’ve ever met; he’s awesome. He just got it from the very beginning and he made sure we were as comfortable as possible when we were doing the whole thing. He took us into his family home for a week in pre-production: he’s a great guy. He’s not in any way intimidating.

RA: There’s no ego or anything and he likes pranks; he likes a joke, mostly at Rikki’s [Waldren, keyboards] expense. (laughs)

 

Romily, I’ve heard that you have your own guitar effects pedal business. How did you get involved with that?

RA: I’d always been interested in pedals and how they work. I’d wanted to do it but it’s quite an intimidating thing, especially if you don’t have that much cash: you’ve got to buy all the stuff and I never really had the time to give it a go. Then when we were in Canada, I got stuck up there for six weeks on my own; it was just me, Garth and his assistant, Nigel. Nigel knew how to make pedals so I said that I wanted to do it and he taught me. I’m not really sure what I want to do with it. It just depends on sourcing parts: pedals are expensive to make and I’m waiting on all the cash. (laughs) It’s on hold for now.

 

Any prospects for a business on that front?

RA: I hope so. As long as I was still making them I wouldn’t want to be some bogus person going up to people on the street yelling “buy my pedal!” while some poor children in China are making them.

 

What can we expect from Yolk? Any ballads?

RA: Yes! One whole ballad and there’s cello in two songs. I think we wanted to balance it out. I love bands like Slayer but you forget how heavy it is when you listen to a whole album: you’re so bombarded that you grow numb to it and we didn’t want that to happen with our album.

JS: Yeah, Slayer have got it all wrong. (laughs)

RA: I love Slayer, I really do! Don’t make a tagline like “we fucking hate Slayer!”

 

And finally, when will the album be released and why’s it taking so long?

RA: Why is it taking so long? I’d like to forward that question onto Alex Close at Universal Music! No, it’s just because, with downloading and everything, we want to make sure we’ve played to as many people as possible before we put it out; unless you’ve made that connection by meeting people and letting them see you live or unless they have some crazy morality, there’s no reason for people to bother to actually buy your album.

 

Emotional blackmail then?

RA: (laughs) Yeah, we’re just trying to manipulate as many people as possible. It’ll be out on 4th July.

 

Independence Day?

RA: Is it? I might have made that up then. (laughs) It might just be a familiar date. It is coming!

 

Print Version (Quench magazine, issue 108)

Danelectro Cool Cat Chorus Review

Danelectro’s Cool Cat range has been a pleasant surprise for anyone who has tried any of their funky-looking but great-sounding boxes. Although a number of pedals (Transparent Overdrive, Drive and Fuzz) now have second incarnations, partly due to rumours of boutique-“inspired” circuits, much of the original lineup is still going strong and with good reason. Indeed, the Cool Cat Chorus is Danelectro’s fourth mass-produced chorus pedal and, some would argue, their best, thanks to the many advantages the company’s latest format brings with it as standard.

On The Surface

If any stompbox stylistics will split opinions, it’s Danelectro’s and the Cool Cat series is not one to buck the brand’s unique, but ultimately bizarre, trend. Where other companies are happy to settle with a non-descript rectangular box, Dano have gone one “better” and created some kind of half-car, half-animal-paw hybrid with a kerazy logo. On the plus side, this will liven up any pedalboard lacking in character but whether such a flamboyant personality is wanted is another matter entirely.

Still, to concentrate on appearance is to ignore all the fantastic features Danelectro have, ahem, crammed into this crazy cat. True bypass, metal enclosures and jacks, as well as a blinding blue LED come as standard in the Cool Cat series and the Cool Cat Chorus is no exception. Four controls for mix, EQ, speed and depth make this the most versatile cheap chorus on the market, particularly when compared to its closest true-bypassed competitor, Electro-Harmonix’s Small Clone. Unfortunately, the sheer number of knobs also brings with it a number of extra problems; top-side controls may prevent inadvertent setting changes mid-stomp but they also make turning the damn things much harder than on a regular stompbox, particularly with regard to the stacked mix/EQ controls. Fortunately, power preferences are the simple Boss 9V kind, ensuring that the Cool Cat Chorus isn’t quite the most finicky feline on your board.

Sounds

It’s only upon hearing a Cool Cat that you realise exactly why they’ve been such a success; close your eyes and you’d believe that you were listening to a far more expensive pedal. Indeed, not only does the Cool Cat excel in its basic chorus tones, but the range of sounds available make it worth much, much more than its unassuming asking price.

All controls set to 12 o’clock provide a rich, deep sound and, with a couple of tweaks, dependent on your guitar and amp setup, it’s perfect for adding a touch of shimmer to an exotic chord progression. The EQ and depth knobs are particularly effective for avoiding the sometimes seasick, but always overused, 80s chorus effect, making this cat an ideal candidate for the clean grunge and metal tones popularised by the likes of Nirvana and Metallica in the early 90s. If, however, the 80s are still your proverbial thing, a touch of distortion and a few open chords can help to capture some of that perm-addled magic.

One of the pedal’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to make full use of the mix control, thanks to the effective depth knob. Indeed, true vibrato sounds can be obtained by simply cranking the mix and gradually adjusting the depth to your liking. This can capably reproduce the wobbly sounds heard on Blur’s early work but carries with it a slight alteration of your guitar’s tone which the EQ can’t quite offset. Still, this is to be expected when tonal control is assigned entirely to the pedal, without any of the guitar’s original signal.

Another area in which the Cool Cat succeeds is emulating leslie/rotary speaker tones. A common request for chorus pedals, this sound is best achieved through faster speed and lower depth settings and can add an element of fragility or a psychedelic vibe, depending on your playing style. Considering how highly praised my old Arion SCH-1 is for this very task, I was impressed at how well the Cool Cat held up and, in the case of its enhanced control, superseded the old plastic relic.

Interaction with other pedals is an important area for stompboxes, particularly when it comes to modulation and gain, but, once again, the Cool Cat doesn’t disappoint. The pedal responds well to picking dynamics and there were no detectable clipping issues with high output humbucker signals. Indeed, I had great fun placing the Cool Cat after a high gain fuzz and, combined with a digital delay, was able to emulate a number of square wave synth tones surprisingly convincingly.

Overall

Despite a somewhat overzealous exterior design, the Cool Cat Chorus offers a remarkable feature set at an incredibly impressive price point. While it certainly holds up to pedals double, and even triple, the cost, it does have a number of unique quirks that might dissuade potential buyers. For one, it’s not the quietest chorus when used with gain but still considerably more so than Electro-Harmonix’s offerings. Additionally, the stock chorus sound is more of a square wave than a triangle and, as such, its undulating movements may be interpreted as somewhat “sharp”. However, to ask for a wave shape feature on an already overcrowded control panel would be ludicrous, especially considering the troubles already experienced on this front. However, any drawbacks pale into insignificance upon hearing the lush chorus tones this pedal is capable of and, at such a cheap price, there’s no reason not to give this cat a loving home.

TC Electronic: Saviours of the stompbox?

Winter NAMM 2011 had a whole host of stompbox highlights, including Strymon’s latest mind-bending venture with the Timeline as well as some welcome additions to Malekko’s diminutive (in size only) Omicron line. However, the announcement that has me most excited comes in the form of TC Electronic’s TonePrint series: five new digital stompboxes (plus two analog drives), each with a generous number of modes, true bypass plus stereo ins and outs. On paper these are already impressive specs, especially for the price (around £100-120) but the clever folks at TC have one more trick up their already considerably lengthy sleeve: the TonePrint itself.

TonePrint is, essentially, an additional preset for each pedal which can be downloaded from the TC Electronic website. Each of the five pedals in the TonePrint series offer USB connectivity and, as a result, users have the ability to alter the default sounds hidden within the unit. Like all other presets, TonePrints can be tweaked by utilising the pedal’s individual controls but the base sound is entirely new depending on what has been downloaded to the unit.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this innovation however lies with who created the TonePrints. TC have managed to convince a number of pro guitarists to contribute their own settings, including the likes of muscular death-shred merchant John Petrucci, Doug Aldrich (you know, from Whitesnake) and Bumblefoot (“Guns N’ Roses”). While I’m sure there are thousands of people desperate to experience Bumblefoot’s “evil chorus”, this still doesn’t explain why I’m so excited for the TonePrint series. In fact, my real reason for writing this article is not because of what TonePrint will bring to the pedal arena but what it might stop.

Signature pedals: with an oversaturated signature guitar market, evil heads of marketing lured previously virtuous guitarists into giving their name to a product that people, quite simply, step on. Digitech grabbed Brian May, Eric Clapton and, erm, Dan Donegan while Dunlop have been churning out endless variations on the Cry Baby with Kirk Hammett, Slash and Jerry Cantrell models among the company’s most recent innovations. Even the dead aren’t safe from this insatiable cash-grab as both companies snapped Jimi Hendrix up for a couple of much-needed psychedelic treadle-based units.

Fortunately, should TC’s TonePrint format gain momentum, there’s a real chance that signature pedals could finally be resigned to the wastepaper bins of Digitech’s heads of department, where they belong. We could be spared from the tedious fanfare that surrounds the release of one more digital modelling pedal that the namesake artists would never touch (see Zoom’s artist series). No more would Zakk Wylde be able to promote his tepid approach to “brutal” riffs with yet another signature wah/overdrive/chorus (delete as appropriate). With TonePrint as the default configuration, artists could share the sounds they want to share and we, as guitarists, could make use of the sounds we want to hear. It’s a heart-warming thought and, for that at the very least, I thank TC Electronic (although not for their decision to leave tap tempo off the Flashback Delay). Here’s to forward-thinking and progression!

Then again, I hear that MXR also unveiled another game-changing product at NAMM.