Tag: Gear award

Martin 000-18 Modern Deluxe Review

martin 000 18 modern deluxe review

It would be easy for a company of Martin’s stature to coast every now and again. Maintaining brand mystique is exhausting in an age when hype rules the day. Keeping quality and substance intact—and maintaining commitment from the folks on the shop floor that deliver it—is even harder. But year in and year out, Martin continues to make instruments that simultaneously dwell in the realms of the practical, the musical, and the exquisite.

At nearly $3,600—a full $1K more than a standard 000-18—it’s a good thing the Martin 000-18 Modern Deluxe looks and feels as luxurious as it does. But while details like a pearl-inlay, 1930s-style script logo, EVO gold frets, and flawless lutherie and woodwork at every turn will make even the most cynical function-before-form grump pause, it’s the functional facets of the 000-18 Modern Deluxe that impress the most.

Building on Perfection

The 000 body (which shares dimensions, more or less, with the OM) is a cornerstone of the Martin line. Mating it to the “18” tonewood formula, which combines mahogany back and sides, adds up to a guitar that, to many ears, is the essence of balance and sweetness. So how does one refine something that’s so near perfect to begin with? Well, even in the case of an architectural masterpiece there’s always room for a little tasteful landscaping, and Martin has done a fair bit of that here. The 1930s-style logo is inlaid in pearl, while the body binding is East Indian rosewood—a very subtle but rich contrast to the mahogany and beautiful wheat-colored torrefied Sitka spruce top. The bookmatched, 2-piece top has a beautiful grain pattern with medullary rays that add a sense of almost watery depth and a classy, not-overbearing hint of flame out at the edges. I’d imagine our review guitar will be a joy to watch age. The gold, open-gear Waverly butterbean-style tuners may be the most overtly “deluxe” appointment on the guitar. But they are a stylistically cohesive element and feel super smooth and precise.

The additions to the 000-18 that put the “modern” in this very deluxe model include enhancements that appeal to tone scientists that work at the microscopic level: Liquidmetal bridge pins and a carbon composite bridgeplate—components said to improve sustain and volume. Such benefits can be very hard to qualify without a raft of test equipment at your side. But I did sense a more immediate, sometimes explosive, response, which also seemed to expand the guitar’s already considerably dynamic range. If you’ve ever checked out a 000-18 and been at all disappointed with its capacity for fast response, this version could alter your perception. Other non-traditional elements have more tangible effects, like the asymmetric neck, which puts a little extra mass on the bass side and shifts the apex of the neck in that direction as well. The effect is subtle, especially given that the neck is a bit slim. But with its ability to offer more support for the thumb when barre chording or fretting bass notes, I felt less fatigue—and I was testing this instrument at a time when my hands were feeling like a mess. However subtle the effect, I was grateful.

Song from a Siren

There’s another reason that the 000-18 Modern Deluxe feels easy on the hands: The guitar is incredibly even in touch responsiveness and output along the whole length of the fretboard. You’re never squeezing a bit extra here or there to get a note to ring true or free of buzz. Making the connection between thought, instinct, and execution of a note or chord feels like a more fluid and effortless sequence of actions. This quality can have a real upside as you formulate or play melodic sequences, as can the OM-style 1 3/4″ nut width (most 000 guitars have a slimmer 1 5/8″ spacing).

The dynamic response is also superb. Softly plucked notes have substance, body, and complexity. And even a gentle touch with flesh on string gives individual notes blooming, ringing resonance. Approach the 000-18 Modern Deluxe with a more forceful touch and it surprises with big-time headroom and fast reactivity—the kind you more readily associate with rosewood-backed 000s and OMs and bigger bodied D-series dreadnoughts.

The Verdict

Though I tried, I didn’t hear many, if any, weaknesses in the 000-18 Modern Deluxe’s tone makeup—which is what you should expect for (gulp) $3,599. I suppose you could make a case for a sort of new-guitar antiseptic edge in some harder-plucked notes—the kind a torrefied top should help avoid. But I heard nothing that sounded like it wouldn’t mellow over time. And the dynamism of the instrument makes it easy to work around any trace elements of harsh overtones, which are very, very few. Playing a flattop that you feel at one with—ergonomically, tonally, and responsively—is a treat. The 000-18 Modern Deluxe makes it extraordinarily easy to tap into that well of sweetness.

Solar GC1.6AFAB Review

solar gc1 6afab review

Ola Englund, YouTube sensation and guitarist for the Haunted and Feared, started Solar Guitars, his own line of high-quality instruments, in 2017. The company is based in Sant Gregori, Spain, and their guitars are made in Indonesia. But as the marvelously decked-out GC1.6AFAB reviewed here reveals, this collaborative formula is yielding killer results at relatively affordable prices.

Down to the Details

At a glance, the GC1.6AFAB evokes great all-around instruments like the PRS SE or even the Tom Anderson Atom. It looks sharp, and even a bit traditional, with its flame maple top on a mahogany body and gold hardware down to the pickups, bridge, and tuners. Only the pointy reverse headstock, lack of inlays (other than the Solar logo around the 12th fret), and glow-in-the-dark side dots betray a possible metal-oriented lineage.

The guitar is meticulously crafted and there are no visible construction flaws. The low-action factory setup is perfect. The GC1.6AFAB’s design is very ergonomic, too. A belly cut adds a nice contour to the backside of the guitar, and the neck-through-body construction with sculpted neck joint allowed easy access all the way up to the 24th fret.

With jumbo stainless steel frets on a graphite-reinforced neck, a dual action truss rod, a 13.78″ radius fretboard, graphite nut, and locking tuners, the GC1.6AFAB is thoroughly modern. The EverTune bridge is another contemporary distinction. It uses a system of floating saddles and springs to keep each string in tune no matter how aggressively you play. It can also be configured in a multitude of ways. On our test guitar, the EverTune was set up to permit bends on the top three strings, while the lower strings were set to resist pitch bends entirely. It was a weird experience to bend away at those strings, or add vibrato, only to hear pitch that never wavered. And I was certainly thrown off when I instinctively tried to make low-string notes growl by adding a little bend. Set up this way, the EverTune will take some getting used to. However, it’s a killer feature if you pick hard or inadvertently pull some of the notes sharp while chording. If you’re recording and need to nail a pitch-perfect take, it can be invaluable. And you can always reconfigure the bridge for a more conventional but still exceptionally stable setup.

It Chugs, It Slugs, It Sings

The GC1.6AFAB’s pickups, a pair of excellent Fishman Fluence Modern active units, also display Solar’s forward-thinking approach. They have independent volume controls with a shared tone knob that has a push/pull function for the Fishman Fluence’s voices: “active” (voice 1) and “passive” (voice 2). (Here, the phrases active and passive refer to voicings rather than the strict definition of active and passive pickups.)

With the bridge pickup and active voice engaged, pick response is crisp and fast on the low strings. With help from with the EverTune’s unwavering tuning stability, individual notes and picking nuances are super articulate. Digging in harder rarely revealed any flubby ambiguities. And fast alternate-picked sequences felt super precise. Be forewarned though: If you’re having a sloppy day, the Fluence pickups’ immediacy can be unforgiving.

In clean settings, the GC1.6AFAB’s bridge pickup sounds very hi-fi, and very loud in both voices. Multi-finger tapping phrases are punchy and pop out loud and consistent along the fretboard. Cascading arpeggio runs have a harp-like clarity and individual notes sound consistent and even across the guitar’s whole range. And while the pickup isn’t overly bright, there is a ton of presence. Until the tone knob is all the way down to about 2, you hear little in the way of “darkness.” The neck pickup in the active voice has more bass focus than the bridge. When I held an open-G chord, the 6th-string resonated with a bottom end that you could call boomy. Comparatively, with the passive voice, the neck pickup seemed a bit more balanced.

The Verdict

If I imagined a shredder creating a custom guitar, it might look and feel a lot like GC1.6AFAB. There’s a lot about the style that feels relatively traditional, save for the many cutting-edge components that Solar included here. At $295, putting an EverTune bridge on an existing guitar (a process that would involve routing and probably devaluing your instrument) is an expensive proposition. Add a set of gold Fishman Fluence Modern pickups at around $260 and you’re looking at well north of a $500 investment even before you pay to have your upgrades installed on an existing instrument. Given how seamlessly Solar brings these elements together in such an impeccable-playing guitar, the $1,349 you’ll pay for a GC1.6AFAB is a pretty amazing deal.

Solar Guitars GC1.6AFAB Demo | First Look

Great Eastern FX Small Speaker Overdrive Review

great eastern fx small speaker overdrive review

Overdrive pedals don’t often set my world alight—even great ones. But I’ve spent a month with the England-built Great Eastern FX Small Speaker Overdrive, and it remains attached to the other end of my coil-y cable. Ostensibly, the Small Speaker is meant to be a variation on the tweed-Fender-Champ-in-a-box theme. However, both the pedal’s name and the Champ associations fail to do justice to how large and alive it sounds and feels tethered to a bigger amp.

For one thing, the Small Speaker has more headroom and low-end ballast than a hot, wide-open tweed Champ. You can certainly summon the focus and midrange-y punch that makes that amp a star in front of a microphone. But thanks to the Small Speaker’s excellent EQ, you can also conjure a substantial measure of tuneful low end that is a perfect counterweight to its open, aerated highs and mids, and makes this little pedal a wrecking ball.

Small Speaker Overdrive with Rickenbacker 330, black-panel Fender Tremolux, Universal Audio OX with black-panel Fender Deluxe speaker emulation. Various combinations of EQ and gain with level between 1 and 2 o’clock. Guitar volume attenuation occurs at approximately 2:00 and 2:40.

The Small Speaker is also super dynamic. If you set the pedal up for a crunchy, high-gain setting, it gets much cleaner at attenuated guitar volumes—not sort of clean and thin, or slightly crunchy, but full-bodied and sparklingly clean. This characteristic, among many others, makes it a dream pairing for a black-panel Fender. I’ve had the black-panel Tremolux used for this review for decades. It’s flat-out my favorite amp. But in all that time, I don’t ever remember it sounding quite as sweetly crunchy as it does when hooked up to the Small Speaker Overdrive. What an impressive little pedal.

Source Audio ZIO Review

source audio zio review

Source Audio nicknamed the new ZIO pedal “the Better Box,” which is a fair summation of what this thing will do for your tone. Purists may rant endlessly about the virtues of plugging straight into an amp. But many legendary players understood that a little extra “hot” between guitar and amp can add up to magic. From Jimmy Page’s Echoplex preamp to Brian May’s Rangemaster to Angus Young’s Schaffer-Vega wireless system, a lot of signature sounds have been shaped with a little extra kick—and often from unexpected sources that are something other than simple boosts. Source Audio’s first all-analog pedal is more than a conventional booster, too. And, to some degree, it celebrates these alternate paths to boosting tone.

Designed in collaboration with Christopher Ventner of SHOE Pedals, ZIO is short for Impedance (“Z” in electro-speak), Input, and Output, which hints at the front-to-back thinking behind the design. The pedal’s input impedance is calculated to optimize the signal from a traditional high-impedance guitar pickup and send it down the line as a sweetened low-impedance version of itself. In doing so, ZIO helps your signal survive long chains of pedals and cable runs. Four selectable modes each offer up to +20 dB of gain and three levels of cable-mimicking capacitance to subtly brighten or darken your tone as desired.

All recordings using a Novo Serus J guitar set to the bridge pickup (an Amalfitano P-90), into a Friedman Mini Dirty Shirley set to clean and 1×12 cab. Zio pedal set at 50% output, Tone on Bright.

  • 0:00 – ZIO pedal off.
  • 0:08 – ZIO on, JFET setting.
  • 0:44 – Change to Sudio setting.
  • 1:04 – Change to E-Plex setting.
  • 1:24 – Pedal off again.

Got Some Front

Though its methods for tone shaping might seem slightly esoteric on the surface, ZIO is easy to use. The knobs are a single control for output level and a 4-position rotary switch, dubbed circuit, which selects the preamp voicing. The JFET mode uses Burr-Brown op amps to generate a transparent, low-distortion boost, mimicking the response of a clean tube amp input. Low-cut mode reduces frequencies that can cause mud and rumble, lending more presence. Studio mode successfully replicates the effect of using a Pultec compressor to cut muddy lower-mids and enhance presence. The E-Plex mode, meanwhile, replicates the rich, clear, and just slightly colored sound of a vintage Echoplex preamp.

Source Audio is mindful of the fact that a long cable’s capacitance is an essential part of some players’ overall sonic brew, and that a booster/line-driver in front of the chain can negate the capacitance effect. So ZIO includes a tone toggle that offers three levels of cable-capacitance emulation. Bright represents a low-capacitance load and the brightest tone—as you might hear from a very short, high-quality cable. Med approximates a 15-foot cable and softens highs just a bit. Dark achieves the mellowing effect of longer or coiled cables.

A 2-position mini-toggle to the right is specifically tailored for players that will keep ZIO on at all times and allows the user to configure the footswitch as a mute function in place of the traditional off setting. That means one of the two outputs on the left side of the pedal can feed a tuner running independent of the signal chain or deliver a line-level signal to any amp, console, interface, or input that you want to keep live while muting the main output. Nine-volt DC power feeds the ZIO, with a center-negative input on the crown. It’s all housed in a rugged brushed-aluminum enclosure that’s not quite mini-pedal small but compact at 4″ x 2.3″ x 2.2″ tall (including the knobs).

I fast fell I love with ZIO’s variety of boost tones and easy integration into my pedalboard.

All Lined Up

I fast fell in love with ZIO’s variety of boost tones and easy integration into my pedalboard. It flat-out sounds fantastic. Some players will no doubt consider ZIO pricey for a booster pedal with a few extra bells and whistles. But the enhanced tones will be well worth it for many guitarists, even if they only ever use one circuit mode.

That said, switching between the circuits is half the fun. And at times I fantasized about a rig based on two ZIO pedals: One that I could use as a transparent always-on line driver and tone juicer, and another as a proper boost. Used in the latter application, ZIO made my tweed-style combo bite and break up a lot more readily. It was also secret sauce for a Friedman Mini Dirty Shirley, making its Plexi-style crunch and lead tones extra delectable. While all four preamp-emulating modes proved effective—and I could certainly find many useful applications for each—I really fell for the Pultec-inspired studio mode. It’s sweet, juicy, clear, and articulate, and it simply makes everything more luscious. It can also offer a playful dose of extra drive when you crank the output past 11 o’clock. It sounds fantastic as an amp-input driver in this setting. The tone switch settings are pretty subtle, but that’s the idea: You use it to fine tune the feel and character of the signal once you’ve dialed in the other functions to near-perfection.

The Verdict

Boosts are often one-trick ponies. But Source Audio and Christopher Ventner’s sly and very smart selection of features make ZIO a whale of a tone enhancing machine—and a sneakily versatile one at that. Yes, the ZIO is a simple device in principle, but it does what it does exceptionally well. And while many players will regard the tone switch and switch modes as minor bonus features, I suspect they will prove invaluable to many exacting tone crafters and super-functional in some rigs. For me, at least, they help make ZIO one of the tastiest boost pedals I’ve tried in quite some time.

Catalinbread Cloak Review

catalinbread cloak review

Around the time the aughts slid into the 20-teens, pedals like the Electro-Harmonix Cathedral and Strymon Blue Sky Reverberator put spacious-sounding pedal reverb top of mind for guitarists everywhere. The Strymon, in particular, got players excited about the studio-quality fidelity its turbocharged SHARC processor provided, and its ability to add a “shimmer” mode, which augmented plate, spring, or room settings with reverberating octaves above the source signal.

I bought a Blue Sky not long after we first reviewed it in 2010, and its lush room setting helped define my sound for the next few years. My reverb-junkie tastes moved toward clanking old-school spring sounds, but I still periodically kick myself for selling it, and wish I had a smaller pedal to turn to when I want ethereal infiniteness. Fortunately, many companies have risen to meet that need, and Catalinbread recently unveiled one of their own in the Cloak Reverb & Shimmer.

Cult of Simplicity

As prevalent as big reverbs have become; the most lusciously enveloping pedals tend to be larger (and more complex) than guitarists prefer. Still, many surrender board space to programmable pedals from the likes of Strymon, Eventide, TC Electronic, Line 6, Neural, and Boss seemingly for one reason: Pristine-sounding ambience takes a lot of processing power.

Catalinbread isn’t the first to follow an alternative path free of digital readouts and big footprints. But Cloak deserves accolades for walking the middle ground so stealthily. At heart, it’s not much more than a super-straightforward, huge-sounding room reverb with a minimalist control set: room-size, high-cut, mix, and shimmer knobs, and an internal slider for selecting between trails and true-bypass operation.

No Digital Daggers

I tested the Cloak with a TV Jones-equipped Gretsch Jet and a Curtis Novak-oufitted Jazzmaster. And whether I was playing straight into Cloak and a Fender Vibro Champ, driving it with a J. Rockett Archer into a Sound City SC30, or taking advantage of the wider range of a silver-panel Vibrolux Reverb paired with a 1×15 bass combo, the Cloak’s lovely fidelity took center stage. What’s more, as simple as its interface is, the range of possible sounds is remarkably diverse.

Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of shimmer reverb because it can easily sound maudlin or sci-fi cheesy. However, Cloak made me reevaluate my position.

One reason for this diversity is the powerful high-cut control, which, according to Cloak designer Lee Brady, is a low-pass filter fixed at 5kHz. Cranked full clockwise (with room size at its 250 ms minimum, mix at 2 o’clock, and shimmer off), high cut enables Cloak to sound like a lovely old plate reverb. Meanwhile, the same settings with high cut at minimum (i.e., with full treble bandwidth) turn Cloak into an almost reverse-sounding dirty plate reverb—perfect for reggae skank. Bring room size up to noon and crank high cut, and you can nail plaintive, spaghetti western tones with a bright-ish bridge pickup. But there’s more: Fingerpick with high cut at noon and mix cranked to conjure faux-chorale harmonies on lower strings—or tremolo pick the 6th string near the bridge for impressionistic “cello” sounds.

Mind you, all this is achieved without touching the shimmer knob, which introduces more intense modulated sounds in three frequency bands as you turn it clockwise. The result is often reminiscent of bright, dreamy synth pads. Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of shimmer reverb because it can easily sound maudlin or sci-fi cheesy. However, Cloak made me reevaluate my position—again, largely because of the high-cut control. With mix at max and higher room-size settings, high cut tamed some of the more garish aspects of shimmer ’verb and turned my guitars into veritable film-scoring machines. Fretting high and alternately tapping or raking the side of my steel pick against the 1st string while adding discordant bass notes brought to mind modern horrors like Hereditary (again, with tremolo picking working wonders for building suspense). Gentler moves like muting and tapping lower strings near the bridge, or even just smacking the guitar’s body, yielded atmospherics more befitting a thriller.

The Verdict

While I don’t anticipate switching my primary ambience allegiance away from spring reverb any time soon, Catalinbread’s Cloak scratched a longtime itch—and many I didn’t even know I had. My biggest complaint has less to do with the Cloak than it does the technological line separating almost any streamlined, single-function modern reverb from pricier, more powerful competitors. To get around using powerful microprocessors that make programmable stomps expensive, pedals like the Cloak use a cost-effective architecture that prevents dry signal from passing when the device is in trails mode and the mix is set to maximum. So, if you want to switch quickly between Cloak’s most atmospheric sounds and more traditional sounds, you’ll have to use true-bypass mode and forego the luxury of sounds lusciously decaying in the background. That’s a bit of a bummer—but not enough to stop me from lusting after this lovely box.

Strymon Zelzah Review

strymon zelzah review

The Electro-Harmonix Small Stone was my first weird pedal. Initially I gravitated to the Small Stone because it seemed so utterly immodest, but I soon came to treasure its more subdued settings and its ability to communicate a strange, mysterious melancholy.

Strymon’s new Zelzah, with its ultra-flexible controls and combinable 4- and 6-stage phasing modes, can generate many nuanced variations on these extremes and thousands of colors in between. It also generates immersive chorus and flange tones that make this a very powerful little waveform manipulator.

Purple Waves of Phase

Strymon has remained crafty about maximizing the utility and user-friendliness of their compact stompboxes. On the Zelzah, they use their now-familiar formula of six knobs, two footswitches, and two small toggle switches allocated to two primary functions. Much like Boss pedals, this uniformity in design inspires a certain confidence (at least among players that have previously used small Strymon pedals) that you can dive in and find your way through the forest without first spending a week with a manual. Because this is a Strymon, quality time with the manual is a good idea. There is deeper functionality to consider—particularly if you embrace its MIDI potential. But players keen to get on with creation can dive headlong into the Zelzah’s pleasures and get fast results.

The Zelzah is divided into a 4- and a 6-stage phaser section. The 4-stage phaser side is ostensibly the more streamlined of the two, with knobs for speed, depth, and mix. But the toggle functions makes things interesting fast. The classic voice does nice approximations of old-school analog phasers. But the addition of a barber pole phaser, which gives the aural illusion of phase cycles unwinding endlessly, helix-like, into space, opens up cool compositional possibilities and rhythmic phase effects. The envelope mode is awesome too, not least because it can be set to sit subtly in a mix. The speed and depth knobs double as range and sensitivity controls, and the modest-to-quacky range of effects is impressive.

The 6-stage side of the Zelzah is also simultaneously streamlined and full of surprises. The main attraction here, apart from the thick 6-stage phaser, is a voice switch that morphs between phase, flange, and chorus modes—all of which are excellent. There’s also a 3-position resonance switch that gives all three voices great mellow-to-extreme range.

While Zelzah’s MIDI functionality technically enables hundreds of presets, and you can hook up an expression pedal to effectively move between two preset sounds, you cannot store and recall presets on the unit itself. You’ll either need to delve into MIDI or use an external footswitch with which you can save a single preset. You’ll also need an external switch if you rely on tap tempo. Personally, I find the Zelzah’s basic controls intuitive enough that I don’t need presets or tap tempo much. Some habitual deep divers will, no doubt, be bummed.

Players keen to get on with creation can dive headlong into the Zelzah’s pleasures and get fast results.

The USB jack that enables MIDI connectivity is situated on the crown of the pedal. But there are also true stereo outs as well as a switch that moves the pedal from mono to stereo. Stereo operation is another joy well worth exploring in the Strymon. Just be prepared to allocate a whole week for spelunking these modulation depths.

Motion for Many Moods

The Zelzah’s possible modulation textures start to feel pretty limitless once you get acquainted with the controls—particularly because you can combine the 4-stage phaser with the 6-stage phaser, chorus, and flange.

The 4-stage classic mode is easy to navigate and awash with nice phase colors. The slow and mellow tones are great. So are the fast and intense ones. You hear a lot of detail in these modulations, too, thanks to the pedal’s super-low noise. The potential of the barber pole phaser piqued my interest most. Most barber settings have a frequency-narrowing effect that lends the phase a little more focus, which in turn makes the phase cycle feel more intense. I found a bunch of cool ways to use the tick-tock sway of some of these patterns as rhythmic underpinnings for riffs. And when using the barber pole in compound 4- and 6-stage phaser sounds, you can tune in cool whistling overtones on top. Phasers may be almost intrinsically psychedelic, but the barber pole effect genuinely tweaks your sense of space and time a little more intensely.

The envelope mode, meanwhile, is a riff factory. It twists simple licks in the same way any envelope filter would. But here, the breadth of phase sounds, the ability to keep the effect subdued, and the contouring effect of the phase waveforms take the Zelzah’s version to more malleable and mellow places.

Six-stage phase sounds are generally more intense than 4-stage tones. And with the variable resonance switch available to ramp up the weirdness, you’ll probably want to stop here for your most freakish phase experiences. Even with the resonance switch off, most 6-stage voices feature a detectable whooshiness. And, at mild and high resonances and deeper depth settings, things get ultra-chewy.

The nice chorus and flange effects on the 6-stage side can be made very mellow with the resonance off, but can also assume weird and intense personalities at high resonance and depth settings. They are a fantastic addition to the killer phaser sounds that make Zelzah a practical one-stop modulation shop.

The Verdict

If you’re on the fence between keeping your phase classy and subtle and indulging your wildest modulation urges, Zelzah can accommodate wild fluctuations between those extremes. The compound modulations are an endless well of unusual sounds. And the very rich chorus tones and flanger—and the ease with which you can summon and shape them—make the Zelzah a very fair deal, even if the $349 price initially gives pause.

First Look: Strymon Zelzah Multidimensional Phaser