Checking Stompbox Batteries without a Tester

A while back I was in a shop, and saw a Keith McMillen battery tester. You can plug into a pedal’s input jack, and it tells you whether or it’s time for a new one. Great idea for $30!

There’s an easy way to check to see if the battery in your stomp box is dying or dead for FREE, though. If you have a nine-volt AC adapter (and who doesn’t?), just plug it into the pedal’s AC jack while the pedal is already switched on with the battery. If the LED gets brighter, it means the battery has fallen below than nine-volts. DU-uh, right? I discovered this trick after leaving my pedals plugged in overnight many times…

This only works on a stomp box that has an LED, of course. In some Boss pedals, for example, you may have noticed the word “Check” above the LED. It may not be obvious but this was originally intended for checking the battery-charge. This works even better in the dark, obviously. It’s not always easy to tell how much is left in a battery from a dimmed LED, but if you plug in an AC adapter while the pedal is engaged, it’s very easy to see the difference between how much  more power the pedal is getting from the adapter.

After installing a fresh battery, the voltage will quickly drop to between 8~9V. When it falls to below that, it’s probably time to get a new one, but it depends on the device. 3~5V is almost certainly useless, but if you like the sound of a fuzz with a weak battery, you can save these weakened batteries. Unfortunately, the Keith McMillan Battery Tester does not tell you how many volts you get from a battery, like a multi-tester would.

With a fresh battery, occasionally the LED shines brighter than with an AC adapter! This is because a new battery may actually have enough juice (or current) to put out closer to 9.6V. The acid/juice in battery cells is like water in a ballon, and the voltage is like the air-pressure. So less current means less voltage, just as less air volume means less pressure forcing its way through the opening.

A regulated Roland/Boss AC adapter  puts out exactly 9V, but some other brands like Line6 will put out 9.6V, and you can also measure this with a $30 multi-tester. Every home should have a multi-tester, but BE CAREFUL! I’ve never shocked myself testing an AC adapter, but one I did trip all the fuses in the house. Not good for downloads.

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There was a bad taste in my mouth while changing pickups on Saturday, and it wasn’t from my beer. The bad taste lingered from some online exchanges I had with other guitarists about non-guitar related topics, because most guitarists are so cool they don’t need to know the difference between uncool things like subjects and topics or journalism and social media. Or even more critical important stuff like overdrives and distortion.

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The article pictured above is a specimen of click-bait that I preserved after finding it on an acquaintance’s F_c_book feed. I was hoping that it would share some new opinions on whether the volume levels of amps was becoming as unwelcome as second-hand-smoke in clubs. This is a very sensitive issue about something I love which is in danger of becoming prohibited, or worse, socially unacceptable (uncool) like cigarettes have become. And my opinion on cigarettes is that the are no more really harmful than car exhaust until smoked in excesses like a pack or more a day, and that this is an education problem more than a public health epidemic. (BTW, inhaling too much car fumes will kill you more efficiently.)

After reading through the article twice, I could find nothing to do with political correctness, and began to suspect that the author does not really know what it is. It also made me suspect he has deal with Ibanez. No one needs to read anything more about Tube Screamers that hasn’t already been written and easily accessible on the internets. If there was a point to the article, it’s “Get your @$$ back to G.C. to keep buying and trying gear, consumers!”

My comments about this on F_c_book were not well received. I was worried that maybe I offended Albert, because I guess maybe the author (I’m being generous here) was a personal acquaintance of his. Probably I crossed the line when I called the writer a, “tone-somellier.” Maybe he just doesn’t like having his thread hijacked, but that’s how social media works. Else turn off comments.

Articles are constructed specifically to say nothing thereby forcing readers to have a discussions. It’s actually the users creating the real content in the comments. I respect those other posters as professionals and musicians, but after seeing their knee jerk reactions, maybe my respect is too cheap.

Guitarists are not a very clever tribe. We love inefficient 50s technology. Progress of the instrument seemed to stop in the 80s when the music, technology and especially the fashion became too complicated. Meanwhile, the generation of kids that paid for the first consumer boom of the 60s grew up, became doctors/ lawyers/bankers/engineers; and then used their money to buy all the stuff they wanted back in the 60s and new CDs of music that merely pays tribute of the music of their youth is considered fresh. That music from a Golden Age when gear, politics and personal relationships were simpler. There was no AIDS, draconian DWI laws, Muslim terrorists, credit crunches or political correctness back in the 60s and 70s. There was the establishment vs counterculture. Racism was indeed black and white, and it was easy to choose the right side of that fight, in spite of the risk imprisonment, beatings, bombings burnings and even assassinations. Most importantly, the minimum wage was still enough for you to buy a house, a guitar, and have some left over to buy an electric guitar.

Now, facts have been replaced with social media discussions which fail because in a world where any lie can be presented as journalism, anyone can blog, and no one is accountable for any of it, opinions become the next best thing become the currency of discussions. This was the subject of one of the BBC documentaries I watched while installing a new set of ____ pickups in my guitar.

Honestly there was really nothing objectionable about that PG article. Of course experimenting is great fun! I spent my weekend installing new Microcoil pickups and a Q-filter in my guitar. Then used Boss’ new dual-expression pedal on my delay and envelope filter at the same time at a jam session I hosted where I also learned that a F$$$$R Twin turned up past five was a bit too loud for some there. (Sorry, no Tubes Creamer on my board, but I love my Barber Custom Cool.)

Excessive volume is topic of extreme importance to me and all electric guitarists now more than ever. Smoking isn’t allowed anymore in many clubs. So how long before some invisible social power or maybe even the PoTUS calls for a ban on tube amps if not only because they damage hearing, but because they’re too power hungry and contribute to global warming? I particularly don’t want to live in that world.

Finally the Fuzz Breaker!!!

The first time I went window-shopping for guitars in Tokyo, the Fuzz Breaker  jumped out and kicked me in the face. Back in ’98, vintage reissues and handmade clones were still new and novel, especially in Japan where it usually takes 5-10 years for Western  trends to be accepted. Builders like Sobbat and Boot-Leg were the first over here.

Sobbat still makes silicon, germanium and octave Fuzz Breakers, but for a measly ¥6000+shipping, I won a bid for one the very first germanium fuzzes. There is no AC jack, no LED and no Bias control. It’s so old-school that the  input/output jacks are reversed from the usual right to left, like the Rotosound fuzz reissue. So the first time I plugged in, I thought it was broken, but it was a case of operator error.

The Fuzz Breaker has a softer, warmer sound you’d expect from a germanium fuzz, with a slower attack and grainer texture. What’s really special about it is how perfectly it cleans up the guitar’s volume knob.

The crystal clean tones I get this way are outstanding, but this is not unique to germanium fuzzes. Prior to this I had a  Hartman Silicon Fuzz and Fulltone ’70 BC109 which both cleaned up nice, but not like this. However, it can get too bright, and the guitar’s tone control doesn’t have much affect with fuzzes,  so there is  also has a L/H switch, which seems to roll off the high-end. I definitely preferred the sound with switch set to “H.”

Another pleasant surprise was that the  Fuzz Breaker seems ot have a bit more output than other fuzz pedals, like my Seymour Duncan Tweak fuzz. I A/B’d these pedals, and they actually sound very similar. I’ve read somewhere that the Tweak Fuzz was designed so sound like a germanium fuzz, and it certainly sounds less brittle than those other silicon fuzz pedals I’ve tried. What this tells me that a fuzz is more than the sum of its parts. One of my favorite fuzz tones is my Field Effects Manifold Drive which is actually an overdrive using JFETs.

I can’t really say that other germanium fuzzes I’ve played with before the Sobbat FB-1R like the Fulltone ’69 and Rotosound fuzz reissue were any better or worse,  only that the Fuzz Breaker is smaller and cheaper. Based on my experiences with about a half-dozen fuzz pedals overall, I can’t hear any mojo in germanium fuzzes. However I do tend to find mojo in cheaper pedals like the Tweak Fuzz, Nobels ODR-1, Guyatone WR-2 and Sobbat FB-1R.

Blackstar Fly 3: The Perfect Practice Amp

I first heard the name Blackstar in a childhood cartoon on CBS. John Blackstar ran around in a loin-cloth and leather booths wielding a glowing sword like He-Man. I hated He-Man and kids who played with him, but I could relate to Blackstar. He was a minority and an astronaut, and had a hot astronaut girlfriend, unlike homosexual He-man who never managed to get it on with Teela. (Then again she was pretty butch.)

Maybe that’s one reason I like Blackstar  amps. Reeves Gabriels’ endorsement is another,  but most of all their amps have great features and sound right. Their HT-1R amp almost replaced my Little Lanilei 1/4-watt amp, but the new Blackstar Fly 3 is really the perfect practice solution for me.

 The Fly3 is a battery powered amp made of plastic, but what sets apart from similar offerings from Marshall, Fender, Vox and anyone with access to a factory in China is the optional Fly 103 satellite speaker. This isn’t just a powered extension speaker — it’s the other half of a stereo pair. This helps the sound of the amp fill the room, and makes the guitar sound a lot better. It also means you can use the amp as PC monitor speakers!

As an amp, the Fly sounds are surprisingly natural. Cleans are warm and clear, overdrive sounds really like a low-gain tube amp, and it cleans up with volume adjustments I wasn’t sure if it’s digital or solid-state, but it sounds good enough for what it is that I don’t care.  The gain and volume controls compensate for each other nicely. Finding the right balance of treble, bass and mids with the ISF control takes a bit of finesse to find the sweet spot. You’d expect an amp called “fly” to have thin buzzy distortion, but this is NOT the case. The highest gain settings are not as satisfying, but the amp takes pedals without issue so that doesn’t matter. Having  digital “tape delay” instead of reverb may also seem unusual, but for me it’s a perfect since I love delay, and am picky about reverbs. Unfortunately the delay does not seem to make use of the stereo speakers to create more ambience.

As PC speakers, they are plenty loud, and definitely a huge improvement over built-in laptop speakers. My roommate was impressed enough to want a pair until he realized it was one of my guitar amps. However I’m a bit spoiled by my my Fostex PM -03 monitors. Compared to those, the Fly sounds but harsh and 2-dimensional, but that comparison is really unfair because the Fostex monitors are 15 watts through a crossover network driving a pair of tiny tweeters. At least the Fly3/103 does not reveal the artifacts in MP3s.

Most of the time I use  AC power supply, but occasionally I forget to plug it back in. Fortunately, battery life from four AAs  is excellent. I’ve left it on overnight, and it played strong the next day for hours. The power supply seems overpriced at $30. You’d probably spend that much batteries in a year. I found a used 6.5V power supply for an old digital camera for $10, cut off the plug, and replaced it with one the right size.

Ironically, the one I got used actual sounds like there is a fly or mosquito trapped inside the plastic cabinet. Maybe it flew in trough the port hole?  Taking it apart to check inside was a scary operation because it’s made of plastic. Pots are mounted on the board, and secured to the panel with nuts. A single screw hidden behind the logo slowed me down initially. Inside, the guts are A LOT of SMT components, so little or no chance of modding.

Unfortunately I never found the source of the tiny buzz, but I like the amp enough that I bought another one for a different room in my apartment.

BOSS OD-1 Overpriced?

Recently I had a chance to try an original Boss overdrive in a rehearsal studio. Based on my experiences with their Super and Turbo Overdrives, I wasn’t expecting to like it, but SURPRISE!!! It sounded friken cool, and I’ve been obsessing over it ever since. The OD-1 is certainly more than an SD-1 without a tone control. Years ago I saw a listing in Vintage Guitar Magazine calling it “BOSSES Tube Screamer!” but to me the OD-1 is superior with more output, treble and versatility than a TS-9. Less is actually more in this pedal.

Crank the gain into a clean amp with chorus,and it takes me back to early 80s modern rock. Roll the gain down, and it will push a low-gain tube amp for modern blues, more Chris Duarte than SRV. Or plug into a Marshall and crank everything to shred.

The Boss OD-1 is not rare, but it went out of production since 1989, so some people feel that justifies asking $300 for them, and as much as $1500 for one in mint condition with the box and papers. The most expensive ones tend to have a large 14-pin quad op-amp instead of transistors buffering a tiny 8-pin dual opamp.

Ironically, the later ones were built with the same JRC4558 dual opamp found in original Tube Screamers, but can be had for as little as $130 — much cheaper than a vintage TS-808, right! Fortunately version that turned me was from the early 80s with a 4558 IC.

Recently I was lucky to win a bid for one with a broken AC jack for $100. However there are a few cheaper alternatives, like the Noah’s Ark Yellow. This has a 4558 chip, and sounds really close, plus it’s true-bypass so I can put it before my fuzz in my chain.

There’s also the mini Valeton OD-10. Candidly inspired by the OD-1, it looks great, and will easily fit in your pocket or guitar case, but that means it’s too small for an internal battery, and needs a power supply. It’s so tiny that I didn’t bother opening this one up.

Does a quad opamp sound better? I still haven’t played a Boss OD-1 with the late-70’s quad opamp so I can’t say, but Analog Mike says it does. He also says you can get very close to the sound of the early ones by changing capacitors, resistors and using a second opamp instead of transistor buffers.

However there is  company in Japan called Aldente Effects who make a boutique OD-1 clone using a dual 4558 for about $220, and respectfully named it the Over Drive One. I asked them about this, and they strongly feel the later versions are indeed an improvement over the first pedals Boss made in the late-70s, and that the true sound of the OD-1 comes from the transistors — NOT the opamp.

Before droping a C-bill on my own pedal, I read a great post on TRPRI by 11 Gauge about the evolution of Boss overdrives , and was surprised to find that the discontinued OD-2 and newer Boss OD-3 use transistors, rather than opamps. The Boss OD-3 was by far and above the best Boss overdrive I ever heard, before I tried the OD-1. The Boss Book says the OD-2 was originally designed to capture the sound of the OD-1. To my ear it does not at all, and sounds like it has an identity crisis. The OD-1 sounds like a BOSS. Get it?

Although the original integrated circuit packages (ICs) Boss used to make their first overdrives in the seveties are long out of  production, quad opamps are not obsolete. Texas Instruments still makes them, and some find their way into new overdrive pedals like Studio Daydream’s Trad Note pedal. Maybe someday I’ll find one, and blog about it here…

 

 

The Little Mermaid Amp

One of my most special treasures is Little Lanilei 1/4 watt tube amp.  It’s rounded corners and hand embroidered mermaid grille attracts a lot of attention from the ladies here in Japan. They all think it’s a handbag…

After my crazy reclusive spinster neighbor complained to the police about my Mesa/Boogie F-50, I began auditioning smaller options like the Roland Bolt-30 and Ibanez Valbee (precursor to their TS line of amps). Initially I didn’t like the Little Lanilei because it doesn’t do cleans like I needed for jazz and funk until I started rolling down the guitar’s volume. That discovery totally changed my approach to playing and gear.

The  F-50 had two sets of independent controls for clean and dirty channels.  The Little Lanilei just has a three-knobs and mode switch for medium gain or high gain. Some of the best rock tones I’ve ever had come from this amp, and I don’t really miss my Mesa/Boogie. Pushing it with an overdrive pedal like my Nobels ODR-1 or  Boss OD-1 is a really takes it to the next level. Most fuzz pedals sound great with her, too.

Little Lanilei

The internal 6.5″ speaker is far superior to what you find in an amp like the Valbee (I swapped them for a time). Obviously, it sounds a whole lot better through a larger external cabinet. It can drive a Marshal 4×12  or anything from 4~16Ω because it actually uses a solid-state power amp to drive the speakers. You can’t do that with a tube output stage.

Wait, I thought this was a “tube-amp”? It is. The guitar’s pickup goes straight to a 12AU7 tube! The second is a 12AX7 tube which is wired like a power tube instead of the usual preamp application, and can deliver about 0.25 watts of power in that configuration. The tube’s output is then attenuated by a load resistor (just like a dummy load only smaller), and then reamped by the same LM386 opamp that makes the Smokey Amp sound so cool. The amp’s master volume controls the final solid-state driver section.

There is also a line-out directly from the tube stage that bypasses the solid-state chip, but the signal from the line-out is very hot because it’s coming from a power tube!  This is too much for most effects like my Korg PX4. I used the Pandora for cab emulation and reverb with headphones, but  recently got an old half-rack Boss SE-70 which has a +4b/-10db switch on the input, and at trim pot. The line-out jack also works like an effects loop with a TRS-cable, but will needs an Ebtech LLS-2 Line Shifter to play nice with most pedals.

Just like a real tube amp, you can swap tubes to change the sound. For lower gain, I used 12AU7 tubes in both positions, but found that I’m cheating myself out of the great high-gain tones. A 12DW7 tube in V2 is a nice compromise of clean-up and high gain. A 12AT7 in V1 gives a bit more gain and high end but the amp doesn’t need it. The best combination of tubes I’ve found is aTung-Sol 12Au7 and Mesa/Boogie STR425 (12AX7).

I like the tone of this amp so much I also tried the 3350LT and Super 50 versions of this amp for gigs and jam sessions, but there’s really nothing like the original.

Here are some tips for settings:

Clean: Gain at 9 o’clock or less, tone at noon, Master all the way up.

Low-Gain Drive with Clean up: Gain/tone/master all at 10 o’clock.

Hard Rock: High-gain mode, Gain at 2 o’clock, Tone at 11:30 Master at 3 o’clock.

With Ext. Speakers: Tone/gain all the way up.

With Line Out and High Gain: Tone all the way down.

 

 

What Time Is It, Race Queenie?

One more great and nearly un-useless Japanese inventions is an app that tells time using pictures of girls. The girls in original were actually not nearly as hot as the app’s name would have you believe, but the one’s in the race-queen version are. Unfortunately, this PAID app stopped working when I was forced to upgrade to iOS 9 by Apple. Fortunately however, I look lots of screen shots of the best, uh times in idle moments I had to kill.

Like me, these race queens are not famous in Japan. I don’t know any of their names, so don’t ask.