Ebtech LLS-2 for +4dBu Effects Loops

IMG_4879Anyone bothering to read this blog will have noticed that one of my treasures is an early Little Lanilei 1/4 Watt tube amp. It turns out I was still using it wrong until last week when an Ebtech LLS-2 arrived from the States. This magic black box makes the little amp compatible with the effects like reverb and cabinet simulation that I need for silent practice. LLS doesn’t stand for Little Lanilei Softner, but that’s effectively what it does for me. Without it, the signal from the amp’s line out is hot enough to cause some very nasty distortion in my Korg Pandora even at low levels; and not the good kind that the Lanilei was designed for, but the harsh and splattery digital variety.

The Ebtech has two channels, each with two jacks labelled “+4dBu” and “-10dBu.” I’ve never been exactly sure what that means for signals, so the only way to be sure was try it. The website said the amps line-out jack is compatible with +4db effects, so I plugged the Little Lanilei into the +4 jack, and the -10 into the Pandora’s input. The level was much more manageable and the sound was much warmer. Still, one of the symptoms of impedance mismatch can be loss of high end. Since there was certainly less of everything, I tried reversed the connections to check that I wasn’t doing it wrong. With the Pandora connected to +4b, the sound was so loud and harsh I think it damaged my hearing a bit!

Plugging a Y-cable into the Little Lanilei’s line-out turns it into an effects loop. Before the LLS-2 I had the opposite problem with my modded Boss digital delay: the repeats sounded weak and undefined (though with a stock Boss DD-3, this might actually be a good thing.) Boosting the E.LEVEL compensated for this, but the sound quality was still different. Fortunately, the LLS-2 has a second channel for stereo gear, but I can use for matching impedances for both the SEND and RETURN of an FX loop. BOSS compact pedals are supposed to be -20db effects, so it seemed obvious to connect it the -10db jacks, but isn’t the output of a buffered pedal a line-level signal, thus compatible with the high-impedance inputs used on pro-gear, meaning I don’t need impedance matching for the RETURN signal, right?

No, actually. While there was no loss in overall volume without the LLS-2 between the the DD-3’s output and FX loop return, the delays sounded small, inarticulate and grainy! However with the right connections (-10 from effect, +4 to RETURN), the sound was perfect. To test for volume loss, I pulled the TRS plug out of the line-out jack, and the amp suddenly got a lot louder. Even though the amp wasn’t as loud with the LLS-2, the Little Lanilei was not designed to be loud but sound great at the lowest volume possible. That it does that inspiringly, especially now with the Ebtech LLS-2 moderating the effects.


Qwik Summer Reviews

Summer’s seen some some serious shopping. Blog blabbing boring begets quick concise comments:

  1. Xotic SP Compressor: Awesome on my G&L, less effective with my Ibanez GB-10 in spite of all the dip switch settings. The three-way switch and blend knob on the top can go from very subtle compression, to nice squash, and even overdrive an amp nicely. Sounded amazing with a little Fender SD-15 practice amp. Still not ready to get rid of my limited edition sparkle-red Barber Tonepress, though.
  2. AMT WH-1 “Japanese Girl”:  Smaller and lighter than a Boss Pedal, this pedal makes my pedal case a lot easier to carry, saving my shoulder for the gig but better suited to my 8-year old son’s foot than mine. It has a very chewy sound more like an envelop filter compared the hollow funkiness of the Budwah, but I love filters, so I’m totally satisfied with the sound (but not selling my black-label Budwah.) Some adjustment to my heel-toe technique is required, adjustable pedal tension with a hex wrench helped. Being op-amp based, there are no issues in front of a fuzz.  The switch and LED make using it easier to use live, too.
  3. Fusion F1 Gigbag + F2 Attachement Bag: This gig bag provides plenty of protection for the guitar, lots of pockets for stuff and support for my back and shoulders. However the killer selling point are the attachment bags that I can use to stow a small pedal board (about five devices), leaving both hands free. The attachment bags is also a great stand-alone laptop backpack, and I now use it everyday on my commute.
  4. Korg Nanopad 2: Cheap and compact, but not user friendly. The pads are touch sensitive, but just barely. They only seem to be capable of three levels, and sometimes don’t trigger at all. The advanced features like scale/key for the XY-pad are not intuitive, but I’m having a lot of fun after read the brief manual several times. I was getting confused by the buttons for Scale/Key/Octave/Range, etc. which only affect XY pad. The editing software can help manage velocity, tempo, scales and opens up some new creative possibilities like toggling pads to hold notes and triggering multiple events, like chords.
  5. Planet Waves PW-GR-01 Guitar Rest: As soon as I saw one of these, I knew I had to have it. Only $10 and made in the USA, this is one of those accessories that should have been made decades ago. It’s not perfect, but does really make reaching for my guitar and picks a lot easier, and again when I put them down.

Little Lanlilei Love

Little Lanilei is a compact tube amp that I first heard about through my friend Ben Gross about 10 years ago, and ignored because it was seemingly designed for rockers, not aspiring jazzers like I was back then. However fate conspired to send of these handmade beauties my way last summer. As I’d anticipated, she didn’t play clean. She was made to get dirty. But she was so cute that I kept her on my shelf to decoration my practice room. Then I came upon hard-times, and I had to start downsizing my collection of unique gear.

Little Lanilei was an obvious candidate for auction, but I needed to test her to one more time to make sure she was alright. After all, I had only been able to afford her in the first place because she was messed up and neglected by her previous man: a guy who argued with me for a long-weekend over shipping the power cable and service culture. Even after fixing her up with a soldering iron and a new tube, she still didn’t sound right at max volume plugged into 100V Japanese mains.

Search an ye shall find, and verily unto me was delivered a cheap step-up transformer small enough to fit into my guitar or suitcase. So I got us a cheap soundproofed room for an hour, plugged in and turned on. It took a while to find the sweet spots on the red and white gain and tone knobs, but once I found them, I also found myself really enjoying the sound that came out of that little mermaid-embroidered grille, especially sandwiched in between my pedalboard and a Marshall cabinet.

I actually had so much fun, all I could think about was doing it again the next week. So I invited some coworkers into the studio for an hour to see if the little amp could cut through drums and bass. Sitting atop a Marshall half stack at ear level, and boosted by my Barber Tonepress, she sang true over the bass player’s 20-watt Warwick practice amp, and even managed to stay audible over the drums and my vocals. There was never any danger of being too loud with this 1/4 watt amp, and overpowering anyone or damaging their hearing.

After being complimented on the amp’s appearance by my coworkers and the studio receptionist, (and failing to find any bidders at my desired starting price) I have decided to keep her. My experience let me get to know her better, and in the process, hear better, too. Now I know that I can even use her for jazz at home, if I turn down the guitar’s volume, and the amp’s tone control. Swapping in a low-gain JAN 6189A preamp tube helps, too. I think I’m in love with Little Lanilei.

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Saturday/Sunday Shopping

Weekends typically find me taking my son to karate and then and window shopping at the local instrument retailers to kill time. This weekend was subtly different because I actually bought something. Normally music stores don’t have anything gear that I’m really interested in using, and  usually don’t have the best prices,  but this time I wanted to get a multi-plug cable to replace the Ibanez DC3 (daisy-chain) which won’t fit in my Buhwah AC jack, and doesn’t reach my Barber Tonepress from my pedalboard’s Eneloop power supply.  I saw one of these, and paid about 500yen too much for it, instead of waiting to search Yahoo! Auction for a cheaper price.

I also saw a used Korg NanoPad2, and got it for 2000. Both were impulse buys, but both were something I really needed. Now I can neatly power all the pedals on my board, and make original beats in realtime with software (once I midi-map the NanoPad to Live.) Also, that trip was almost the last one I made there. My kid’s karate class schedule is changing to weekdays meaning I won’t be able to take him anymore. However, I saw a bunch of cool used pedals that I could potentially covent this time which brought me back on Sunday with my guitar for a test.

Just when I got there the next day, a ukulele player was giving an in-store concert, so I sat down and listened to him and the piano accompanist close their set with a very slow rendition of, “When You Wish Upon a Star.”  Then I went to another part of the store and plugged into a Roland JC-77 to try the pedals. Then the ukelele player started a group lesson on “Happy Birthday”  so I couldn’t play too loud, or at least would have felt like a guilty asshole if I did,  probably because I’m there talking to the staff almost every week. Last time, the girl at the register gave my son an egg shaker! Some skinny guy in a necktie kept buzzing past me, ready to pounce if I did, anyway…and anyway, that amp was overpowered. I tried asking if I could try the pedals with something smaller like the 1-watt Blackstar HR-1R, but the answer was no.

The first pedal I tried was the Xotic Robotalk. My friend and local guitar hero Peter Montgomery said he wanted one, which piqued my interested. Turns out this is just a dual-envelope filter. The features and sound are great, but not really any better than my Guyatone Wah Rocker, and harder to tweak. I never did get a satisfactory envelope after adjusting the sensitivity, input and decay. The resonance and direct controls didn’t really do much to improve the basic sound. Still, there is some potential here. I’d like an envelope filter with a boost for solos and this one’s definitely got that. So I might give one of the other versions a try some other time.

The next pedal was a Fulltone ’69 fuzz, my first experience with germanium transistors. It took a while tweaking the input (HIGH) and contour controls (low) to find a sound I like, but again, it didn’t sound better than my Seymour Duncan Tweak Fuzz — just different. It’s definitely a warmer, softer and more dynamic sound, but I like the extreme compression,  overtones and almost synth-like sound of the silicon based pedal. The ’69 had less gain, and harder to tweak the other parameter. In otherwords, I’m happier with a cheaper fuzz. I also tried an old Boss Hyper Fuzz because David Gilmour uses one. That sounded REALLY cheap, but in a cheap way — not such a cool way.

It also has a massive clean boost which didn’t sound as nearly good as the Fulltone Fatboost (FB-1) I tried there that day. It sounded just as good as I imagined, and boosted the signal enough into the Roland’s “low” input, so I didn’t have to use the “high” input which is way too loud even at “1” on the volume knob. The Fat Boost warmed the amp up, and enhanced the round tone of my GB-10. All the controls were very easy to use, and I think I could even get some nice low-gain overdrive from that box. The price they were asking was very competitive, too. I guess they either don’t realize the value, or don’t want to discourage someone spending more on the newer FB-3.

I might have even bought one of those pedals if I wasn’t so constrained by the ukulele demo, and amp better suited to wedding gig than trying pedals in a store. This reminded me why I rarely try gear out in a store. It’s usually better for me just to order it by mail, try it at home and then sell it on an auction if I don’t like it. That saves a lot of time and embarrassment, if not money. Back home in the den (I need a better name for that room), I fixed my AKG headphones, and G&L Legacy’s TBX pot (half of it, anyway) but couldn’t figure out how get the Nanopad to work with Live. It works great with Garage Band, though. So I guess I will follow Yosuke’s advice, and start making beats with that instead.


VOX “Valvetronix” VT20+

In 8th grade, I though the coolest amp in the world was a VOX AC/30 Top Boost reissue. In the 12th grade, I thought my chrome Vox V847 Wah-wah pedal was way cooler than the black Dunlop Crybaby that everyone had.  However, when a pro-guitarist recommended a Vox VT20+ modelling hybrid amp, I had doubts because the market is saturated with their products now, so I don’t associate the brand with my heroes like Beatles, Brian May or Miles Davis anymore.

Still, this amp has a Power Level control which reduces the output down from 30 watts to 1 so it won’t piss off my nay-bores like my Mesa/Boogies did, PLUS built-in-effects and other  little details like 1/8″ jacks for headphones and aux input make it ideal for home practice, too. It even has a built-in tuner which is great for me because my Roland TU-80 broke recently. Will all this for just over $100, this amp is an incredible value.

All these built-in features are not really necessary for me, but they do mean less time worrying about extra gear and connections when you just want to start playing right away just like a purely analog amp. Eventually, my curiosity eventually gave into the temptation to try all of the amp models and effects, and of course this can be a lot of fun. The advanced functions are not a particular intuitive because the functions of the various buttons next to them can be confusing. Next to the amp model selector, there is button to modify the voice, and a green/orange/red LED to indicate this. Most of the time the green is the lowest gain, orange is medium, and red is highest, but this is not always the case (see below.) The Preset button choices (Basic/Effect/Song) are even more misleading. You have to read the manual to know what you’re supposed to be hearing, but fortunately you can easily ignore it by holding the button to enter Manual mode, as I did initially. Then storing those settings is as easy as saving your favorite radio stations on your car stereo.

Another example of counter-intuitive function is the Tap-tempo button which also changes the parameter of the Modulation/Delay effect if you hold it down. Then the there’s the label for the Noise Gate on the single knob for the Pedal effect, but it’s not clear how to to use this. These functions can be ignored, too, but this amp has THREE volume controls: Volume, Master and Power Level. After reading the manual, I learned that Master affects the tube’s output and affect on the sound. Power Level doesn’t affect the level when headphones are plugged in, and settings for both aren’t saved in presets. You can save the Volume setting in presets which is good since the amp models do have a wide range of Gain.

Some of the amp models are truly outstanding. Their voices are convincing, and they react to changes to the guitar’s controls. The tone controls react like an amp would, too. For example, turning up the mids will push the amp into overdrive for some models the same as my Mesa Boogie F-50 did. The most important amp model is the Clean/Red setting, which is just a flat preamp. This is probably there to make the most of the (lame) Acoustic simulator effect let’s you hear what the amp’s other components, like the speakers and “Valve Reactor” sound like WITHOUT the digital models. It sounds pretty unimpressive, which just goes to prove how good the models are.

After playing it at home for a few weeks, I finally trialled it in the studio with a drummer. At 20 watts or higher, it’s just enough power for a rehearsal. However the amp does get noisy at those levels. I did not test for clean volume at those levels, though. The models don’t sound as balanced at higher volumes, but it never sounds bad. Fortunately, the amp reacts to my own pedals very naturally. My Barber Tonepress fatted it up the same way it does any amp, and the Ubberrat pushed the models into distortion beautifully.

As for the built-in effects, the manuals description of these and the effects are very descriptive without actually mentioning the models they pay homage, and have to get (or pay for) permission to use another company’s registered trademark. This almost makes the manual fun to read, except for the vague and condescending bits which look like they were poorly translated from Japanese. They all sound adequate and convincing, but lack character as you’d expect.

With “so many great models to choose from,” it is tempting to try to use them all to get your money’s worth, but my experience with other modelling amps has taught me that you even if you only find one or two that you really like, you are still getting your money’s worth because you’re already paying less than you would for one amp. This is what I learned from using the Korg Pandora and Tech21 Trademark 60. Plus the models for my favorite effects like auto-wah, overdrive, delay, and reverb are good enough. If you factor in this and the other practice support functions, I definitely got my money’s worth.


Upgrading Ben’s Black Bass

Bass is the bigger half-brother of the electric guitar. Thanks to (Sir) Paul McCartney, and later James Jamerrson, Jaco Pastorius and Ron Carter, I’ve always been very interested in the bass. I love the way it sounds, the deceptively simplicity of it’s technique, and the subtle but essential position it has in modern music. The only reason I don’t play it more is because guitar is usually more fun, but not always. So sometimes, more often recently, I reach for my friend’s old black Bill Lawrence bass.

It looks something like a Spector with brass hardware and a PJ pickup configuration, and plays well. However it doesn’t sound (or look) as good as the ash-bodied Fender PB-70 I bought last year so I could help my friend form a band, even after putting my favorite GHS flatwounds on it. I got rid of the PB70 when Ben unloaded his gear on me, and went back to Berlin. So one of my current projects is upgrading Ben’s black BL bass, now that I’ve made progress with some of the others.

Considering the name on the headstock, it’s surprising it doesn’t sound better, but the problem might just be that the pickups are not close enough to the strings. At least, that’s what the man himself would probably recommend first. Replacing pickups is expensive, and even if the pickups in this bass were not made buy BL, they a probably Gotoh pickups which are very good. So I’m going to get some spring-loaded pads soon to fix this issue.

However, after opening up the the control panel and seeing the massive control cavity underneath, I’ve been thinking that it would be a shame to waste all that space by not putting active electronics in there. This can also get very expensive if you want electronics made by Bartollini, EMG, Sadowsky or some other high-end cottage. If you don’t mind electronics made by Chinese teenagers, Artec makes a nice drop-in package  for about a fifth of the price.

Since I’m not really a bass player, this should be more than adequate for my needs, but the question remains, do I really need active tone controls in my bass? The argument I’m making to myself is that if the bass sounded better plugged in direct to a mixer, I would use it more. Plugging it into the Korg PX4, finding an appropriate preset and then tweaking it is pain in the ass. It’s the kind of thing that stops me from PLAYING the bass. But would you really play the bass more, Adam?

For about a week, definitely. Then what? Sell it? Sure. Upgrading it would definitely increase it’s appeal as another auction. This is the same dillema I’m having right now over a VOX VT20+. My Valbee is in pieces on my workbench where it will stay until I can complete testing of every component and circuit in the amp to get rid of the buzzing that makes it useless for home practice. So I need a new amp that I can PLAY, not just tinker with using a multitester and a soldering iron.

Actually, the VOX VT20 would be perfect for practice. I could store my settings, plug in headphones without an adapter or additional gear, and wouldn’t even have to bother plugging in my stop boxes. However, I could plug in my iPod which is something I can’t do with the Valbee. And if it the models do sound artificial and glitchy like the Korg Pandora’s REMS technology which they are probably based on, I can easily sell it, too. But the question again remains: will a new toy really inspire me to PLAY guitar, or just play with gear?


Stripped Screw Holes

Spring EnvyWank bar induced tuning instability shouldn’t be a problem for guitar-players anymore, unless of course the player is a moron like I am. Last weekend, I got a set of Gotoh Power Springs for $6, hoping they would make the G&L Dual-Fulcrum vibrato bridge more stable, and perhaps even enhance the tone of the guitar. A bit shorter and narrower, the Gotoh’s certainly looked nicer than the dull and slightly rusted stock springs (see photo.)

After putting them in and re-tightening, the bridge plate was flush with the body with the claw at about the same position as it was with the old springs. Even after moving it back a few inches, it was still not even close to parallel with the top, so I removed the center spring. The action on the wank bar feels a lot spongier now with just the two Power Springs. Tuning it felt more stable, but that could be just my imagination, because I rewound the strings so that they are lower and closer together on the peg.

Unfortunately, the wood in on of the tremolo claw-screws was stripped, and screw started to slip out of it’s hole! Obviously this made any improvement in tuning stability meaningless… This has been a problem since over-tightening the claw-screws years ago. A repair guy filled it in with wood glue, but this didn’t quite do the trick. So I got a tube of wood putty at my local hardware store (another $6) but the tube was too fat for the tremolo cavity. It was a good thing I was listening to jazz, because I had to improvise a way of getting the nozzle flush against the stripped hole.The solution: a delivery device fashioned from 3cm of drinking straw, followed by a wooden yakitori skewer to stuff the stuff way down in the hole. While waiting for it to dry, I read the package, and noted this particular product is intended for screws 12mm long anchoring up to 16kg. A tremolo claw screw is about 4omm long, and who knows what the Power Springs will do it. So far it’s holding, though I wouldn’t be surprised if I have to squeeze more wood jizm in there again after another major adjustment to the springs.

It’s a bit ironic that I bought these springs to avoid paying my local repair guy to fill in the old holes so he can drill new new ones in the guitar for a standard Fender-style claw that will let me use up to five-springs as I mentioned in my earlier post.  Ultimately though, it looks like that would still be the most comprehensive solution. If and when that day comes, I think I will get a set of Raw Vintage Tremolo Springs. It never occurred to me in 20 years of playing this guitar that the springs could have any affect on performance, but this is an easy and affordable mod that makes playing more fun…unless you’ve stripped your screw holes…

So wanking the bar up/down a whole-step is definitely easier now, and the guitar stays in tune, but the low-E and G-strings still come up sharp if you push the bar down as far as it can go. I hear a ping at the saddle, and knock at at the bridge which is probably the sound of blades slipping off the studs. I guess the felt washers under the blades are supposed to mitigate this, but they’ve been looking depressed for years. It occurs to me as I’m writing about this they could stand to be replaced, too. It’s up to me to balance the bridge height, saddle height, intonation and spring tension which is still a pain in the ass. Hopefully, a the set of Schaller Locking Tuners I ordered will solve the problem so I don’t waste time looking for a perfectly balanced set-up which probably doesn’t exist.