When looking for the best guitar amps out there, it can be a matter of opinion, brand preference, or simply taste. The sound and tone you desire are, of course, the most important factors, especially if you’re trying to emulate the sound of your guitar heroes. Each guitar amp on the market has its pros […]
Buy, sell, trade, and browse listings from Chicago Music Exchange’s entire gear collection—plus, be the first to hear about new product announcements and updates—using their new mobile app.
Boasting a massive selection of the latest-and-greatest gear that the music products industry has to offer, as well as an ever-changing selection of vintage and used instruments—plus, a handful of rare collector’s items—CME offers a retail experience designed to be unlike any other store. With the new CME mobile app, it’s easier than ever to search for any item in CME’s catalog—including new, used, and vintage offerings in stock, or available for preorder—among the store’s carefully curated collections.
Just like the company’s website, the CME mobile app virtually replicates the Lincoln Avenue showroom’s visual aesthetic and flow, letting customers browse gear at their leisure—all within a user interface designed to help customers navigate freely between CME’s full range of distinct product categories. In addition, the app provides notifications specifically tailored to match each customer’s unique gear interests, past purchases, and aspirational items, keeping customers informed of the items that they’ve been on the lookout for.
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Participate in app-specific product giveaways
Use their smartphone camera to upload all the info necessary to sell or trade gear via the ‘CME Sell & Trade Form’
Available for iOS and Android devices through the Apple App Store and Google Play store, the new CME mobile app is designed to aesthetically emulate the visual experience of browsing CME’s showroom. Tailored to each customer’s specific interests and gear needs, the CME mobile app offers users—wherever they might be—immediate access to the latest gear available in CME’s inventory. More info at: www.chicagomusicexchange.com.
Amazon has simply introduced its annual Prime Day sales event for Tuesday,
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The Eras from Walrus Audio is a take-no-prisoners chug machine that offers a few features that would even please the low-gain set. The core of the Eras is a 5-stage mode knob that offers a handful of different clipping options. They range from scooped and tight to compressed and smooth via combinations of LED and silicon clipping. In position 1, you have LED hard clipping, which creates a more focused low end that works great for Papa Hetfield-style rhythm playing. Position 2 uses silicon, and it becomes a bit more scooped (think early Pantera) and seems to be more compressed.
Ease of Use: 4
Walrus Audio Eras, walrusaudio.com
With the remaining three positions, you get a combo LED/silicon setting and slightly different EQs on standalone LED and silicon clipping. I was quite impressed with how the Eras handled single-coil and P-90 pickups, as both came across as possessed by the soul of a cranked-up humbucker. Along with bass, treble, volume, and gain controls, it also has a very handy blend knob that moves from a completely dry signal to totally effected. Dialing in a bit of your dry signal allows you to really sculpt the clarity in some of the more saturated settings. It was also big fun to add just a bit of high-gain fizz in the background of a mostly clean tone—almost like a distorted shimmer effect.
Walrus has a pretty-well-documented history of creating forward-thinking stomps that are more than just what you see on the surface. The Eras will catch the eye of the djent-and-chug crowd pretty easily, but I found just as much beauty in the lower (relatively speaking) gain settings. Overall, this is a pedal that delivers to more than just the target demo.
Test Gear: Fender Cory Wong Stratocaster, Schroeder Chopper TL, Fender Jaguar, Revv D20
A lot of cruel fates can befall a gig. But unless you’re a complete pedal addict or live in high-gain-only realms, doing a gig with just a reverb- and tremolo-equipped amp is not one of them. Usually a nice splash of reverb makes the lamest tone pretty okay. Add a little tremolo on top and you have to work to not be at least a little funky, surfy, or spacy. You see, reverb and modulation go together like beans and rice. That truth, it seems, extends even to maximalist expressions of that formula—like the SolidGold FX Ether.
The Ether is tricky enough to bewilder if you’re not careful. The three modulation modes—tremolo, harmonic tremolo, and vibrato—all feel, sound, and interact with the reverb differently. An economical but mildly complex control set definitely demands that you put in a little study. And few settings fit neatly into tidy categories like “vintage spring emulation” or “light hall.” But what the Ether lacks in super-intuitive operation it makes up for in surprises and a fluid user experience that can drag a player in new directions.
Slo-mo psychedelic power pop improvisation with SolidGoldFX Ether using vibrato, tremolo, and harmonic tremolo with many reverb decay and modulation speed and level mixes. Generated with Rickenbacker 330, black panel Fender Tremolux, and Universal Audio OX with a Vox AC30 cabinet emulation.
For guitarists accustomed to simple pedal reverbs, the Ether will take some work to master. There are just five knobs for tone (color), modulation depth and speed, reverb decay, and a wet/dry mix that functions as the level for both the reverb and modulation. A 2-way toggle switches between the three modulation modes or introduces a shimmer effect. What looks simple on the surface, however, belies great complexity among the available sounds. The modulation depth control alone, for instance, is full of tricks. It controls modulation waveform intensity but can also significantly re-cast the voice and response of the three modulation voices. In addition to intensity, depth also changes the shape of the modulation. On one side of noon the pedal generates sawtooth waves; on the other side, softer sine waves. Somewhat counterintuitively, waveform depth is most intense at clockwise and counterclockwise extremes and least intense closest to noon. Additionally, the noon position is a quasi-random waveform in vibrato mode, a square wave in tremolo mode, and a flutter triangle wave in harmonic triangle mode. So, while it’s fun to twist knobs at random to see what you can conjure, getting some semblance of control over the sonic outcome takes paying close attention to how these variables relate to each other.
There are cool, subtle sounds in Ether, even if subtle isn’t exactly a specialty.
The knobs are sensitive, too. This is great for fine-tuning settings when you have an intuitive, muscle-memory-based handle on how the controls work. But they can feel twitchy at first. Nowhere is this more apparent than in reverb decay and level. They each have considerable range. But the lowest level and decay settings primarily yield big reverb sounds. There are cool subtle sounds in the Ether, even if subtle isn’t exactly a specialty. On the mellower side of the Ether’s envelope, I dialed in a reasonable-enough facsimile of an old Fender black-panel spring reverb set to noon, as well as some really cool tile-like, fast-reflection sounds. But the differences between them on the level and decay controls were small and it can be hard to nail in-between sounds reliably. If you largely live your reverb life on the subdued side of splashy, you might want to look elsewhere.
The Ether’s controls are expansive on the modulation side as well. But each modulation mode also moves through very different ranges of intensity. Vibrato modulation, for instance, sounds very intense at high depth settings in relatively dry mixes. Harmonic tremolo voices, however, need a much wetter signal to stand out prominently. Regular tremolo settings tend to require high effect levels (which means you need to mind your reverb decay settings as well). Again, these differences make practice key. But relinquishing control can be just as satisfying. The harmonic tremolo reverbs can span phasey washes and noirish throb. Standard tremolo, while not the most radical effect, provides fast-twitching or hypnotic icing to metallic hyper-springy surf-ish settings. Vibrato’s reverb settings, meanwhile, can range from surreal, robotic modulations to sweet near-rotary sounds. Finding the points where these sounds intersect and mingle is a joy if you have the time to spare.
Apart from the Ether’s lack of low-key, conventional reverb sounds and interactive, trickier-than-it-looks controls, it’s hard to not fall under the device’s spell. If you have time to kill, getting lost in the mega-expansive controls, many combinations of modulation textures, and fields of reverb-based overtones can create pure joy. If you’re inclined toward option fatigue or dread getting lost in quirky controls onstage, there are simpler ways to get your reverb fix. But if it’s big-to-bigger spaces you’re after and the ability to render them distinct, mutant, and wild with washes of tremolo, vibrato, and phasey textures, the Ether is an almost endless amusement park of clanging, bouncing, ringing, and resplendent modulations.
Spaceman effects tend to be cherished, treasured, and, in some cases, driven to insane resale market prices because they reliably sound fantastic. But Spaceman pedals are also rare creatures. And even its most popular pedals tend to come and go—often disappearing before real players can beat collectors to the punch. The analog, 6-stage optical Explorer phaser, however, is the unusual Spaceman pedal that is reappearing in the wild after a hiatus. It returns in a more compact enclosure. But this time out the Explorer offers access to six additional waveforms that build on an already expansive modulation vocabulary.
Not So Simply Red
I love one-knob phasers. They are a sure-fire means to mindless fun, and one less thing to worry about when drifting off amid some psychedelic-jam reverie. That mindlessness comes at a cost, of course. A classic Small Stone or Phase 90 tends to sound just like it’s supposed to and little more. So while you can extract everything from rotary speaker sounds to staccato pitch shifting with such a circuit, they’re usually imprinted with a specific voice and phase coloration—what you hear is what you get.
The Explorer brushes aside those constraints in very cool fashion. For starters, the mix control helps you render the phase effect nearly subliminal. That enables you to use pretty extreme phase voices in low-key ways—a beautiful means to apply the effect to add motion in a spare mix. The Explorer also comes with an output volume control. This means you can overcome any perceived volume loss when using intense waveforms. But it also gives your signal a slight—and slightly dirty—bump even when the effect mix is low. The volume gives you options in that direction, too. And although there probably won’t be hordes of players dying to use the Explorer at less than unity gain, the ability to do so opens up interesting arrangement possibilities in which you can move from straight-ahead clean passages to quieter effected chapters in a song without missing a beat. It also gives you a means to mate the Explorer more easily to an unruly or unpredictable fuzz.
The Explorer’s wave-shaping options are abundant and powerful. The rate control generally falls in line with most classic analog phasers in terms of range—moving from molasses sweeps to insectile stutters. Resonance, of course, adds vowelly emphasis to the waveforms. Its effect is strong enough that I tended to leave it in a modest 8 to 10 o’clock range. But it can also help put a phase over the top in a crowded effects mix and help add rhythmic emphasis. The Explorer’s range control is, perhaps, the hidden gem. There’s nothing magical about it. It’s essentially a filter that enables you to thin out or add a low-end bump to the signal. But the extra low end can be a beautiful sweetening agent with slower phase rates (which get chewier and dreamier with more low end) and gives you extra wiggle room for tailoring the Explorer to different guitars, amps, and effects in your chain.
The extra low end can be a beautiful sweetening agent with slower phase rates.
The Explorer isn’t the only contemporary phaser with the option for multiple waveforms. But there is something about the essential sweetness and clarity of its voice that makes the differences among these wave types feel more distinct. The sine wave is smooth-snaky and sounds dreamy at slow rates and sitting low in the wet/dry mix. Ramp-up and ramp-down waves have a pronounced “reset” pulse at the peak of each wave that tends to reinforce certain rhythm-based approaches. Triangle generates pretty, precise, and steady heartbeat pulses that make lots of room for picking detail at dryer mix levels, but it also sounds awesome at more stroboscopic rates and higher intensities. The square wave at a 50-precent rate and with a healthy heap of low end from the range control is another favorite—and with the resonance just right, you can get a very bubbly auto-wah effect. The alternate phase patterns, which are accessed by powering up while holding down the footswitch, are all worth investigating as well. And the arpeggiated phases, in particular, are especially cool—lending textures that evoke everything from bouncing ball bearings to tinkling glockenspiels.
The Explorer often distinguishes itself by living at a cool intersection of organic and mechanical precision pulses and sounds. But the abundant tone-shaping options mean you can fine tune these tone crossovers like a surgeon. It’s fun, too. The right sound rarely feels out of reach or impossible on the Explorer, so the search seldom feels like work. For anyone that has suffered the limitations of 1-knob phasers but been intimidated by more complex alternatives, there are a lot of cool compromises here. The Explorer is expensive. But it’s a high-quality U.S.-made pedal that reflects a lot of thought and experience. It may just tempt you to sell the rest of the phasers in your collection, too—a smart, constructive way to offset the cost, if you ask me.
The beauty of a great guitar plugged straight into a great tube amp is undeniable. Still, some might say the full potential of an electric guitar is realized only when processing that signal. Of course, some of the most groundbreaking players of all time—from Jimi Hendrix to The Edge—have illustrated this point, and the current deluge of new pedals and thriving builders seems to bear this out.
If you are into processing, pedals might be plenty for you, especially in this era of stompboxes that do things even top studio gear couldn’t manage a decade ago. Still, there is a portal to another world of sound available for live use—a world explored by guitarists like Adrian Belew, John McLaughlin, Eivind Aarset, Fennesz, Dan Phelps, the late Andy Gill, and others. It’s a portal you may be looking at as you read this. I am talking about a laptop computer.
I was introduced to the concept of guitar and laptop performance through the series of Warper parties— gatherings dedicated to computer-based music—I attended in New York City. At the very first one, I encountered a guitarist with a computer built into his guitar and another playing jazz fusion through his laptop to backing tracks, also on computer. Yet a third player was performing arrangements of TV themes, playing guitar with one hand and keyboards with the other—all through a laptop.
Plug-ins offer sonic shaping and effect routing that is difficult or impossible to achieve with pedals. Even if you could, it would require a pedalboard the size of the entire stage and a router/switching system of NASA-level complexity.
For me, performing solo with a laptop let me privilege the kind of sonic fairy dust I had been offering as a side musician, shifting the lush pads and textures I had delivered to singer/songwriters for years out from the background and into the focus of attention. Plus, as someone who does not sing or play typical solo guitar, playing through a laptop let me take control of my performance opportunities: no pesky bandmate schedules to consider for rehearsal or booking.
Many guitarists already use a laptop to record everything from demos to final releases. These days, all it takes is a guitar, an audio interface, a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), and a pair of speakers or even good headphones, and you are ready to make your next masterpiece. If you have worked this way, you have likely discovered plug-ins. Instantiated in a DAW, plug-ins offer sonic shaping and effect routing that is difficult or impossible to achieve with pedals. Even if you could, it would require a pedalboard the size of the entire stage and a router/switching system of NASA-level complexity. Multi-effects units might get you part of the way there but as yet cannot offer the range of potential sounds available with a computer.
With a wealth of creative software, a laptop lets you easily take lush reverbs and mangle them with filters or distortion. You can sequence effects to automatically appear and disappear over the course of a song or composition. If that sounds interesting, you might want to consider transporting your laptop, DAW, and plug-ins to the stage, either as your sole processing system or in conjunction with pedals. Here’s what you’ll need to get started.
Because live performance has different requirements than recording, ultra-high audio specs are not quite as important, but portability, reliability, build quality, and low latency are crucial. Latency is the time it takes for your signal to go into the audio interface, pass through the software on the laptop, go back into the interface, and travel out to the speakers, as measured in milliseconds. You will want the latency low enough that you don’t hear the sound reaching your ears noticeably after you hear/feel your pick hit the strings. Ideally, you will want the most powerful laptop you can afford in order to have access to the fastest processor possible. Plenty of RAM and a solid-state drive will contribute to the computer’s speed.
There are factors that affect latency. One is buffer size, delineated in samples. Without getting too technical, the lower you can set the buffer in your DAW, the less latency you will hear. How low you can set it, without getting dropouts and other unwanted glitches, is determined by the number of plug-ins you are running and the power of your computer. With virtually any of the current Apple M1 powered laptops you should be good to go. If you can’t afford a new computer, don’t worry. I was performing with a MacBook Pro over a decade ago with no problems. You can attempt this with a non-Apple computer, but virtually every major touring act uses Macs thanks to their reputation for reliability.
To plug your guitar into your computer, you will need an interface, which converts your signal from analog to digital. There are many available options, including the Universal Audio Arrow (available used for $350-$399) or Focusrite Scarlett ($179 street). You only need one input, unless you use both electric and acoustic guitars, which have different input requirements. The number of outputs will depend on your signal chain.
A MIDI controller of some sort—foot switcher, tabletop controller, or both—is a good idea because, as with pedals, you will want to turn effects on and off and have access to parameters. Akai, Korg, and others make a variety of tabletop controllers, ranging from $119 street and up, with knobs and switches that will let you turn on, blend, and manipulate the parameters of the plug-ins in your DAW.
You might be thinking, “Aren’t my hands otherwise occupied playing my guitar?” That’s true, but one of the advantages of laptop guitar is advanced looping. Once a loop is created, a tabletop controller lets you easily route that loop through myriad effects—filters, resonators, delays, reverbs—in ways that are impossible with hardware loopers. A footswitch-style MIDI controller is helpful if you want to do sync’d rhythmic loops, though it’s not as necessary for ambient looping.
To process your guitar in the computer, you can use any software that hosts plug-ins: Logic, Pro Tools, GarageBand, Logic MainStage, and others. As a performing tool, Ableton Live (starting at $99 street for an introductory version) is the most ideal and offers a number of unique features. With Ableton, you can tap in tempo, easily syncing all your effects and loops at once, and there are “nudge” buttons that let you move the tempo of loops slightly up or down to match a drummer’s shifting time without changing their pitch. The “link” feature lets you wirelessly sync your effects with your keyboard player’s laptop, your drummer’s loops, and even the computer running the show’s backing tracks and light show.
Live’s native plug-ins will let you create a custom amp-modeling system; emulate digital, analog, and tape delays; and add stutter, granular, or bit-crushing effects. Plus, if you are performing solo using backing tracks and running through a PA, you can easily set a dedicated track to resampling and it will record your entire evening’s performance.
Live lets you loop in two different ways via the looper plug-in and “clip” system. The looper plug-in is great for overdubbing ambient soundscapes, but can also provide timed rhythmic parts, while the clip system is perfect for making multiple rhythmic-based loops that can then be triggered by a MIDI footswitch and/or tabletop controller. While you can’t overdub on a clip, you can set up multiple clip loop tracks where you are able to, for example, record all your verse parts in one row, your chorus parts in a second row just below, and create a third row for the bridge. You can then trigger these rows as scenes.
Live also lets you make “dummy” clips with no audio that can be set to modify effects parameters over time. For example, you could set a dummy clip to increase a delay plug-in’s feedback to just under runaway levels while simultaneously shortening the delay over a period of two bars, and then reverse the process over the next two bars. Try that with pedals!
Would you like to hear two great examples of guitarists using Ableton Live onstage? Check out any video with Eivind Aarset performing. Aarset uses it for a variety of sounds, including ambient reverbs and delays and looping. John Scofield collaborator Avi Bortnick also uses Live for myriad sounds and textures, one of which includes using his guitar to open a noise gate that lets rap vocals cut through only when he plays.
There are multiple ways to insert a laptop into your signal chain. You can run everything through your computer, employing amp modeling software—like Bias FX 2 ($49 street), Guitar Rig ($199 street), or AmpliTube ($99 street)—and running the signal from your audio interface to the house PA or a pair of powered monitors (Fig. 1).
You might instead eschew the amp modeling software and run the signal into a pair of guitar amplifiers (Fig. 2). This offers a way to keep your favorite tube amps as part of your rig. But be careful: Some effects plug-ins can put out low frequencies that don’t work well with guitar amps and speakers.
For both of those methods, all you need is an interface with one input and two outputs. You run your guitar signal into the interface, which converts your analog signal to digital, and then sends that digital info through USB, Lightning, or Thunderbolt cables into the laptop and the software. Next, a stereo digital signal is sent back to the interface, where it is converted to stereo analog and sent out to the amps, powered speakers, or PA using standard guitar cables or XLR-style microphone cables.
A more complicated method is a version of the wet-dry-wet setup. Here you would split your guitar signal between a mono signal going directly into a guitar amplifier and the laptop’s stereo output to two full-range powered speakers or the PA. This setup can be achieved in a few ways. You can use an interface with one input and three or more outputs that can be routed inside the interface. This allows you to send your guitar signal from the interface simultaneously to the laptop and directly to a guitar amplifier (Fig. 3).
Alternately, you could use a splitter box before the audio interface that sends one signal to your interface and computer, and one to the amp (Fig. 4).
If you don’t want to use modeling software in the computer for the wet signal, you can use a reactive load box, like the Universal Audio OX ($1,499 street) or Fryette’s Power Station ($899 street) or Power Load ($699 street), which gets placed between your amplifier and its speaker (Fig. 5). You run your guitar into the amp, and two outputs on the load box simultaneously send your amp signal to the speaker and, with speaker emulation, to the computer interface. Sending the sound of your amplifier to the DAW means there is no need for amp modeling within the computer. Once the sound is processed, it is sent to powered speakers or the PA, as in Fig. 2. In this method, your amplifier signal can remain dry and present, while processed sounds will emanate from the powered speakers or PA.
If you don’t want your amplifier signal completely dry or just want to place some of your effects pre-computer, you may want to use pedals in front of your amp. Which brings us to.…
Pedals and Laptop
As much as a computer can do, there are plenty of good reasons to combine pedals with laptop sounds. Digital modeling software sounds excellent these days, but adding a mild overdrive pedal before your interface can lend some analog warmth to the sound. In addition, a drive pedal set for just a little breakup can make the playing experience feel more organic. As you play harder and softer, the “give” of the pedal can often feel more expressive than even the best amp modeling software.
Plus, just as many plug-ins are not yet duplicated in pedal form, likewise there are pedals that perform functions not available as plug-ins. Glitchy, digital micro-looping pedals like the Red Panda Tensor, Hologram Electronics Dream Sequence, Chase Bliss’ Blooper and Mood, and the Hexe FX Revolver do not yet have any direct analogs in the plug-in world. If you want to learn a programming language like Max MSP, you might be able create something like these pedals inside your computer. Ableton includes Max for Live with the purchase of their suite and a plethora of pre-programmed plug-ins are available using Max as their basis, but these pedals still offer something special.
Taking the Stage
You now have all your hardware and software and are ready to perform. Depending on how you use the laptop in your signal chain, you might be able to place it out of the way and use a foot switcher, as if you were using a standard multi-effects unit. But if you want to maximize the advantages of using a computer live, you will likely want it at hand.
In almost two decades of performing with this setup, I have had fewer computer crashes than pedal malfunctions.
You can normally rely on the venue to provide a table of some sort, or you could try Eivind Aarset’s solution. He brings a keyboard stand and places his guitar’s hard case on it, creating a perfect platform for controller, computer, interface, and some of his hardware pedals. I haven’t used a hard case in years, so I just screwed some handles onto a painted piece of plywood and place that on a keyboard stand.
As with any performance, hearing yourself is crucial. If you are using guitar amps or powered speakers, they will act as monitors. Some powered speakers may have XLR outs to send to the house PA. If you are only running through the PA, you may want to use headphones plugged into your interface to be assured of hearing the same thing as the audience.
Some guitarists have trepidation about reliability when using a laptop. All I can say is that in almost two decades of performing with this setup I have had fewer computer crashes than pedal malfunctions. It is also easier to bring a backup laptop and interface than a second pedalboard and amp.
A laptop dedicated to only music is ideal, but if you don’t have that luxury, make sure to quit any programs other than the performing software in use. Turning off WiFi during your set will prevent notifications from interrupting and provide a little extra processing power. And speaking of power, while it is best to keep your laptop plugged in while performing, if there is ever an issue with clean power or a faulty socket, unlike with pedals, your laptop battery will take over and the show will go on.
Is It for You?
Playing through a laptop is not for everyone. You probably won’t be welcome at your local blues jam if you say, “Hang on a minute while I boot up my Mac.” But if your music involves a world of sounds that go well beyond those offered by hardware pedals and multi-effects, or you’re just seeking a more portable way of producing interesting tones, taking the stage with a computer might be an option. And, with tubes becoming harder to get, who knows? Someday it may be the best option.
Email This to a Friend TrueFire and Sweetwater have partnered up to present you with the best guitar gear deals monthly. As you browse TrueFire’s online guitar lessons, surely you have been curious about which guitar or pedals or amps our educators are using, and, if you’re like the rest of us, you’ve probably been […]