Previous month:
August 2009
Next month:
October 2009

It Might Get Loud


I managed to see the film "It Might Get Loud" this past weekend and my one word review is: awesome.  If you're into guitars, or rock music in general, it's a great journey into the minds of three guitar players: Jimmy Page (The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (White Stripes, Raconteurs).  But it's not the typical "behind the scenes" movie about the ups and downs of being in a band or  the rock & roll lifestyle.  It's just about the music, and more specifically, the guitar. 


In choosing Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, film maker Davis Guggenheim brought together not only three guitar greats, but more importantly, three generations with Jimmy Page as the elder statesman, The Edge as the technology innovator, and Jack White as a back-to-the-roots radical.  (If the film was made thirty years earlier it might have featured Buddy Guy, Keith Richards and Joe Strummer. )

In some of the early scenes of the movie there's a stiffness as the three of them are brought into a rehearsal space together; they are respectful but not quite connecting.  But when Jimmy Page starts playing the riff to "Whole Lotta Love" their ages, backgrounds and musical styles go out the window. At that point, they're fans of the music, just like us. You can tell these sounds move them as much today as it did when they first heard them years ago. 

The movie takes you through the backgrounds and influences of each of the musicians.  You see rare early footage of Jimmy Page playing in a skiffle band, U2 playing as teenagers and Jack White's obsession with drums and guitars.  More importantly, you learn what music influenced them.  It's fascinating to see Jimmy Page playing air guitar to Link Wray's Rumble or hear how U2 were inspired by The Jam, The Clash and The Sex Pistols. 

For anyone interested in guitar and rock music, this is a must-see film.  I hope when its released on DVD we'll get to see even more of the three of them jamming. 

IK Multimedia's Stealth Pedal


If you're looking to plug in your guitar to your computer in order to record music, jam to practice tracks or get in on the whole amp modeling phenomena, there are lots of different ways to do it.  They all involve using some kind of a USB interface, getting new high-performance low-latency drivers and then getting some software to recognize the device and configure it for input.  That's all before you even start thinking about amp models and software effects pedals.  In short, it's harder than it should be. 

Now IK Multimedia has done something out of the ordinary by combining an easy plug-and-play experience with great software and a heavy duty "Wah" expression pedal.  The StealthPedal works both as an audio interface to your guitar as well as a MIDI controller.  With a list price of around $270 (street price $200), it's not the cheapest solution out there (IK Multimedia's StealthPlug wins in that category), but if you're looking for a full-blown MIDI controller with the power and convenience of a Wah pedal, it's a good value.

I tested out the StealthPedal on both a Mac and a PC.  As with the previously reviewed AmpliTube Fender Studio, everything worked flawlessly.  The installation takes care of setting up new low-latency ASIO drivers.  Since the Stealth Pedal is powered by the USB interface, you don't need to plug in a separate AC adapter and power cord.  This also makes it easier if you're taking it on the road or moving between different computers --it's one less thing to leave behind.

Right out of the box you'll be impressed that the StealthPedal is not some piece of chrome painted plastic; it's rugged steel and feels like it would withstand the travails of live gigging as well as any BOSS stomp box.  The StealthPedal includes input jacks for two instruments, as well as jacks for a separate expression pedal and two-switch controller stomp boxes which are available separately.  It's also got a headphone line out as well as separate stereo line outs.  The bottom line is you can build a pretty sophisticated and expandable rig, as long as you don't mind having a computer with you on stage. 


Also included is a full complement of software.  You get AmpliTube 2 Live modeling guitar amps and software effects pedals along with Ampeg SVX UNO (who comes up with these names?) bass amp modeling.  This provides three different software modeled amps and 11 effects.  There's also a Deluxe version of the StealthPedal available which includes the more full blown versions of AmpliTube 2 and Ampeg SVX giving you dozens more amp models and effects.  IK Multimedia has a current promotion whereby you get AmpliTube Metal with either StealthPedal package.  That gives you a boat load of high-gain amps and heavy metal effects like the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, Digitech Whammy and various BOSS overdrive pedals.

To round things out, IK Multimedia also includes the AmpliTube X-Gear expandable software interface (for adding other AmpliTube software), Sonic Reality's AmpliGrooves Loops backing tracks and a copy of Sonoma Wireworks' low-end Riffworks T4 recording software.  With all the software included, this is a heckuva value.

True to IK Multimedia's reputation with AmpliTube, the modeling is first rate and the interface is noise-free.  You get a lot of different sounds at your disposal with this package, and you can customize and tweak the settings easily.  And with the X-Gear interface, you can continue adding new amps and effects as they become available.  Check out the video below for a demonstration of how the StealthPedal can be used with the full range of IK Multimedia's modeling packages. 

If you're looking to create an expandable modeling setup and want something heavy duty, the StealthPedal is worth investigating. 


Times Says Guitar Games Lead to Hard Stuff


A while back, The London Times released the results of a study indicating that kids who play music video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band may take up the hard stuff --namely real musical instruments.

"We have long known that young people are encouraged to take an interest in music if it is presented to them in a compelling way," said Andrew Missingham, the music industry expert who wrote the report. "This research for the first time shows conclusively that young people are being inspired to make their own music by games that first piqued their interest."

The results aren't any surprise to anyone who has observed kids playing these games.  I've seen my nephew go from Guitar Hero to Rock Band and now he's playing a full-size Strat.  While he was always interested rock music, it wasn't until he started playing the games that he developed an interest in playing music.  While these games are no substitute for real musical instruments, they do help develop basic hand-eye coordination and rhythm --both in kids and in adults. 

So go ahead, break out the Rock Band game with the kids.  Not only is it fun, but it might just develop their interest in playing music.  Lets see where this leads to in a few years.  We might just see a classic rock revival.

Turn Down the Suck Knob


Sometimes when you're playing guitar it feels like someone is adjusting the suck knob the wrong way. I don't know that there's a cure for this other than practice, practice, practice.  But here's some links to some resources that might be helpful.

Beatlemania: Blah, Blah, Blah!


With last week's release of The Beatles: Rock Bandand newly remastered CDs, it was Beatlemania all over again.  While you still can't get The Beatles catalog on iTunes, I suspect even that will happen sometime in the next year. Or more likely, the week after I buy the last of the new CDs.

Reviews indicate both the Rock Band game and the new CDs are worth it for Beatles fans. In a "behind the scenes" story on the game the New York Times wrote:

The Beatles are positioning themselves to once again play a significant role in the evolution of popular music — this time by embracing interactivity...

In trying to create a new type of musical experience, Harmonix may also end up transforming the video-game experience. In describing The Beatles: Rock Band, Josh Randall, the creative director, uses words not often associated with games: “It is subtle, and it is sweet, and it is very embracing.” Alex Rigopulos said: “This game isn’t about winning. That’s generally not done in big mainstream games...”

In Rock Band and Guitar Hero, there are avatars that represent the player. If you’re playing guitar in the Beatles game, however, you’ll most likely be playing along with George one moment and John the next. This was a design necessity, but one Harmonix embraced because it kept the focus on the songs. “You’re not trying to be a Beatle,” Chris Foster, the lead designer, said. “You are experiencing this music a little bit from the inside but also still as a fan.”

It's a good article and certainly whet my appetite for the game, as did a follow up article in Wired. For boomers, old-time Beatles fans who have Rock Band, it's a no-brainer.  But it's not cheap.  The game starts at around $60 (software only) and can cost up to $240 for the full-deal plastic replica Beatle style instruments.  (And as has been pointed out, you can certainly buy a decent real guitar or bass for that price.)  Still, when you listen to some of the classic Beatles songs it's not hard to see why their music touches people.  I don't think there's been a song-writing team to compare that compares to the Beatles in 40 years.  So if more kids get exposed to the Beatles music, that's not a bad thing. If some of them then get inspired to pick up guitar, bass or drums, even better.

For those who've had just too much of all the recent Beatles hype, here's a spoof video on Guitar Hero Beatles edition.

And to be clear, yes, I've put in my order on Amazon.  I'm looking forward to it.

Portable Headphone Amps w/ Jam Tracks

I'd been using a Korg Pandora PX4 headphone amp for a few years when traveling.  It was a nice little device and also included some very basic backing tracks, guitar effects and built-in tuner.  Not bad for something the size of a pack of cigarettes.  But the sound quality was never that great, especially if you wanted to lay down a rhythm guitar track on top of some drums. Whatever effects you applied to the guitar (reverb, distortion) would also get applied to the drums.  Lame!  Also, because of how the power switch is located on the side, I would often take it out of my travel guitar accessories case only to find that it got jostled to an on position and there was no battery power left.  

At any rate, since it had been a few years, I figured there was bound to be some improvements in this category and I decided to take a look and see what would fit my needs.  Here are the key capabilities I was looking for:

  • Small & light enough to fit with my travel guitar while on the road
  • Runs on batteries
  • Built-in effects (chorus, reverb, distortion)
  • Built-in tuner
  • Basic rhythm tracks with bass & drums
  • Good quality headphone output, since that's how I'd mostly use it
  • Easy to use, so I could focus on playing rather than futzing around

There are lots of other features you can find in portable headphone amps, but these were the most important to me.  The key point being that playing with a rhythm track is essential for improving your timing.  

Since portability was essential, I ruled out the nice looking Line 6 JM4 Looper, which weighs a couple of pounds and doesn't run on batteries.  Roland's also got a comparable new eBand JS-8 product coming in November that looks very promising.  Since I wanted backing tracks, this precluded the Line 6 Pod family and their portable Pocket Pod and Pocket Pod Express.  All of these are great looking products, but they just didn't have the combination of features I was looking for.

Ultimately, that left three different devices for me to look at: a recently updated Korg Pandora PX5D, the Zoom Z1-Z2 etc, and the Boss Micro BR, a very cool looking portable device focused on recording.  Any of these could fit the bill.  Here's a quick summary of all three:

KORG Pandora PX5D
Px5d The Pandora is the most expensive of the three, with a street price of around $250.  It's a good upgrade from the PX4 with more rhythm tracks to choose from, higher quality sound and a USB interface that you can use for recording.  Although recording is not my intended purpose, the USB interface also gives you the ability to easily customize the sounds and "chains" of rhythms (e.g. songs) from a Mac or PC.  It's about the size of an 1980's cassette walkman and runs on 2 AA batteries or USB power.  

BOSS_Micro_BR-3 Boss has a well deserved reputation for some of the best guitar effects pedals on the market.  The Micro-BR is a small device that is focused on multi-track recording and also includes effects, tuner and rhythm tracks.  There's a significant community around it trading tips, settings and the like.  If you're mostly looking at recording without a PC, this could be the right choice, but there's a bit of a learning curve here.  

Zoom G2
Zoom_g2 While the Zoom G2 is the cheapest of the bunch at around $100, its still got the basic features: guitar effects, rhythm tracks and tuner, all built in.  Zoom also makes more advanced versions with a built-in expression pedal (think "wah wah") and USB recording ability.  If you're on a budget, or have used their earlier products, this could be a good way to go.  But again, some have found it hard to use since the display only gives you a number, no other information.

Ultimately, I decided to go with the KORG Pandora PX5D, partly because I was already familiar with the earlier version and based on reviews, it seemed to be the easiest to use.  In addition to improved sound, the PX5D adds some new features like the USB interface that could make it more flexible for customizing sounds and backing tracks.  

I'll post a full review of the Pandora PX5D in the coming weeks.  If you're looking to improve your rhythm playing with a headphone amp that includes rhythm tracks, any of these gadgets could work well.  If you've used one of these products, let me know what you think by posting a comment below.