DryBell Vibe Machine

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The guys at DryBell in Croatia are nothing if not hardcore—their sole product so far, the V-1 Vibe Machine chorus/vibrato, took four years to develop. Like the original Shin-ei/Univox Uni-Vibe, it features four photocells, though the enclosure is smaller. Painstaking research identified common traits of stellar Uni-Vibe specimens and led to a proprietary matching technology that measures about two dozen photocell parameters. And an exclusive cell-sourcing partnership ensures every V-1 meets exacting specs.

The meticulous standards pay off, big time. The V-1 doesn’t just serve up delightfully warm and swirly chorus and subtle-to-disorienting vibrato with the granular dimensionality vintage snobs crave, it comes incredibly close to matching the supernatural magic of an old organ’s mechanical vibrato sound. And talk about extras: An expression-pedal input enables real-time control of speed, internal jumpers let you engage a Leslie-style ramp-up/ramp-down function and/or an output buffer, a bright/original switch caters to old-school and modern tone tastes, and three trim pots let you tweak output volume and the range and symmetry of the effect’s swell. A true home run.

 

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TC Electronic HyperGravity Compressor

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Leave it to TC Electronic to deliver an affordable pedal compressor with a twist. For the new Tone Print-enabled HyperGravity, they’ve borrowed the algorithm from their System 6000 studio multiband compressor. The results often sound quite unlike any other stomp comp.

The 6000 is the basis for the HyperGravity’s Spectra digital multiband mode. TC touts its ability to enhance treble tones and more effectively even the output of top and bottom strings. It works—though sometimes nearly too well. I love trebly, squashed compressors with heavy sustain for electric 12-strings, but at times the high-end bloom nearly overpowered the bass. I love this sound. Dogmatic twang fiends might not dig it.

Less sustain equals more immediate attack and a more traditional combination of snap and squish. The wet/dry blend control—a fairly uncommon feature on stompbox compressors—is useful for dialing out that tiny-bit-too-much squish when you hear it. It also evens out the hot high end.

The vintage mode is a tad darker than my Ross-derived comp, and found me wanting for a tone knob. But it works nicely with fuzz and sounded awesomewith treble-heavy settings on a bright Vox amp.

Universal Audio Apollo Twin

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Universal Audio’s rack-mountable Apollo audio interface was an hit upon its 2012 release. Its stellar preamps, lucid design, and innovative software were perfect fits for project studios requiring great-sounding components and flexible operation, but not a vast number of preamps. (The original Apollo has four, plus additional analog and digital line inputs.)

I was an early adopter—Apollo replaced two more cumbersome systems in my home studio. Two years later I have nothing but praise for the device. My only beef: I wanted a smaller version for mobile work.

Now it’s here. The Apollo Twin is a 6″x6″x2″ tabletop unit offering many of its big brother’s best features in a gig-friendly format. It’s a remarkable tool for the digital guitarist, though it requires a recent-model Mac with a Thunderbolt port running OS 10.8 or higher, plus a DAW. (UA currently supports Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Cubase, and Live.) There is no PC-compatible version.

Model Interface
The Apollo line offers more than great-sounding A/D/A conversion. It’s also a host for Universal Audio’s plug-ins, allowing you to run more plug-ins than your computer could otherwise handle. Such “assisted” hosting is increasingly unnecessary given today’s faster computers, but Universal Audio’s plug-ins are among the best in the industry. For many users, access to them is a major motive for using Apollo, especially since UA’s plug-ins only run on systems incorporating UA hardware.

The Twin comes in two versions: a dual-processor model that streets for $899 (reviewed here), and a $699 single-processor version. The larger version has twice the processing power, but beyond that, the models are identical. At risk of oversimplifying, I’d guess that the single-processor model is adequate for digital guitar gigs, but that you’d want the larger one for mixing multitrack sessions. See the usage charts on the UA website to determine which version best suits your processor needs.

With its rugged metal enclosure and quality connectors, the Twin is one of the few small-format interfaces that truly seems suited to the physical demands of the job.

UA specializes in officially licensed software versions of classic analog gear, forging deals to create software replicas of many popular studio components, including preamps, EQs, compressors, reverbs, tape simulations, effects, channel strips, and more. Their sound quality is remarkable—UA sets something of a gold standard for modeled effects. However, only a handful of plug-ins is included with an Apollo purchase, and a complete collection would cost many thousands of dollars. (All plug-ins are available for audition as fully functional, but time-limited, demos.)

Another Apollo innovation is the Console app, a virtual mixing board that not only lets you control Apollo hardware from your desktop, but also insert UA plug-ins on input channels upstream from your DAW. With its ultra-low latency, Console can duplicate the effect of recording via hardware preamps and compressors—an impressive feat. (Console only hosts plug-ins created specifically for the UA platform. Meanwhile, UA effects also appear as AU, VST, RTAS, and/or AAX plug-ins within your DAW alongside your other plug-ins.)

The Ins and Outs
The Twin records at 24 bits at sample rates up to 192 kHz. It has two input channels, switchable between mic, line, and instrument level, plus the option of eight more digital inputs via optical cable. There are three sets of stereo outs: main, monitor, and headphone. You enter most values via a single large knob. There’s phantom power as needed.

The sound quality is… well, identical to that of the larger Apollo, since the Twin uses the same preamps and SHARC processors. To my sub-golden ears, the studio results are as good as or better than from any convertors I’ve owned.

The difference with my mobile laptop rig is more dramatic. I’m one of those foolhardy souls who performs live on guitar via laptop, and the Twin blows away anything I’ve used in both sound and build quality. Mind you, I’m generally amazed that under-$200 interfaces sound as decent as they do, but the Twin delivers more depth and detail than any budget model I’ve tried.

It can be hard to describe exactly how one audio interface sounds better than another—it’s not as if the cheaper ones lack highs or lows, or demonstrate obvious distortion. But with a better interface, there’s more sense of solidity. There’s just more there there.

Not Built to Break
Far too many mobile interfaces are—let’s be blunt—cheap plastic pieces of crap. I’m embarrassed to confess how many I’ve destroyed through clumsy footsteps or hurried packing. (Hint: more than I can count on one hand.) And thank goodness, the Twin doesn’t have one of those horrid octopus-style breakout cables (though it does require the included 12-volt external power supply). With its rugged metal enclosure and quality connectors, the Twin is one of the few small-format interfaces that truly seems suited to the physical demands of the job.

Universal Audio Apollo
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I’ve used the review model Twin for my last few live laptop gigs, connecting through the interface to a MacBook Pro running Apple’s MainStage software, and then back out through the Twin to a Boomerang III looper en route to a pair of Fishman LoudBoxes. My tones have more impact and a greater sense of headroom—they simply feel bigger. And it’s reassuring to have an interface on my pedalboard that seems less likely to disintegrate.

Almost Analog
The Analog Classic plug-in bundle included with the Twin is modest: You get legacy editions of UA’s 1176 and LA-2A compressors, not the latest versions. There’s an underwhelming light version of Softube’s Amp Room, plus a channel strip and a reverb plug-in that are both a decade past their sell-by dates. However, the included 610-B Tube Preamp adds fine analog burn to any track—it’s perfect for inserting on a Console input channel as described above.

There’s not nearly enough room here to cover all the plug-ins UA sells separately, though I can’t resist calling out a few addictive favorites: The EMT plates are astonishingly deep and detailed recreations of those classic hardware reverbs. The simulated tape machines—a Studer multitrack and an Ampex mastering 2-track—add warmth and character to anything you run through them. You can hear those simulated devices on the audio examples included in the online version of this review.

The Verdict
The Apollo Twin is a compact audio interface and plug-in host boasting remarkable sound quality and smartly streamlined features. Paired with a recent-model Mac, it’s powerful enough to anchor a busy project studio, yet compact enough to pop into your gig bag for mobile work. The bundled plug-in collection is modest, but I’d still recommend the Twin even if came with no plug-ins. It earns top marks for audio quality, workmanship, and its many useful and innovative features.

D’Angelico Gramercy SG200 Grand Auditorium

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At last winter’s NAMM show in Anaheim, California, D’Angelico Guitars unveiled a line of steel-string flattop acoustics with names like Gramercy, Mercer, Lexington, and Madison. These are, of course, references to locales in Manhattan, where the legendary luthier John D’Angelico built the finest archtops to order from the 1930s until his death in 1964.

With its onboard Fishman electronics, the Asia-built Gramercy is a very different guitar from those classic original archtops. And apart from D’Angelico’s iconic art deco headstock, it doesn’t really resemble anything that the master guitarmaker ever built. But after I put the Gramercy through its paces (and in spite of the very high expectations that come along with the D’Angelico name), I found it to be an agreeable guitar in its own right.

Fancy Meets Subdued
The grand auditorium-sized Gramercy is made from a nice selection of all-solid tonewoods. The top is Sitka spruce with scalloped-X bracing, and the back and sides are rosewood. The mahogany neck is fitted with a rosewood fretboard, and the bridge is rosewood too.

The Gramercy responds equally well to all types of strumming approaches, from boom-chuck to crisp
Freddie Green-inspired comping.

At five pounds, nine ounces, you can’t say the Gramercy is lightweight, but the craftsmanship is very good. The polyurethane gloss finish is free from orange peel and other cosmetic defects, and all of the binding is tight and flush with the body. The frets are cleanly dressed and smooth at their edges. The bone nut and saddle are immaculately cut. Inside, everything appears tidy too. The bracing and kerfing are free from traces of excess glue and rough unfinished surfaces.

The Gramercy is available in five different finishes: natural, vintage sunburst, cherry sunburst, black, or a very contemporary grey black. Our review model came in natural, which best showcases the soundboard’s fine-grained, cream-colored spruce and the dark-chocolate, quartersawn rosewood on the back and sides—a very nice set of boards. The guitar is handsome, but to some players the trademark headstock, with its ornate inlay work, mirrored truss-rod cover, pointed scroll, and chevron-shaped machine heads, might look out of place on an otherwise restrained and traditionally appointed flattop.

Clear Up Top
The Gramercy has a C-shaped neck with a slim profile that’s super comfortable and familiar—especially for players who typically play electric. But the action on our review model was higher than optimal, making it a strain to play barre chords for extended periods and inhibiting fast picked single-note lines. This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. A good guitar tech could certainly lower the action. But it’s hard not to expect a better setup for a guitar that’s nearly a thousand bucks.

Acoustically, the Gramercy lacks some of the resonance and liveliness of a fine grand concert model, and the bass register is a tad underwhelming. But the Gramercy does deliver impressively present mids and clear treble tones. Harmonically speaking, the note-to-note definition and separation are good. And in this context, at least, the buzz-free higher action pays bonus dividends.

Any sonic shortcomings are often compensated for by a guitar’s versatility, and in that regard the Gramercy responds equally well to all types of strumming approaches, from boom-chuck to crisp Freddie Green-inspired comping. When fingerpicking—in both standard and altered tunings—the high action made me feel less nimble, but single-note lines had good presence and definition.

Comprising an under-saddle pickup and onboard preamp, the Gramercy’s Fishman INK-4 electronics package is a nice fit for the guitar. Mounted to the upper bass-side bout, the low-profile preamp is less obtrusive than most. Plugged into a Fender Acoustasonic, the Fishman system sounds terrific, very natural and free of extraneous noise. The bass, middle, and treble controls offer more than enough tonal flexibility for any situation, while the brilliance control adds zing to the guitar’s already sparkling personality. The INK-4’s built-in tuner, which turns green when the string is at pitch, is very readable.

The Verdict
Purists and collectors might not have time for D’Angelico apart from an archtop made on the Lower East Side. But those without such allegiances will find a nice modern flattop in the Gramercy—a guitar that can be played in a variety of styles and stands stage-ready, thanks to the well-matched Fishman electronics. For the price, it does lack some of the complexity and bass richness you’d expect from a good grand auditorium—a body shape often chosen for its strength in those regards. But the ringing high-mids mean it can sit nicely in contemporary studio settings. If you like a little touch of Downtown glam with your otherwise functional flattop, the Gramercy is a great place to start.

Ibanez Talman Prestige TM1730M

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Introduced in 1994, the original Ibanez Talman remained in production just a few years before it was discontinued. It arrived on a wave of interest in offbeat ’60s models. And along with guitars like the Charvel Surfcaster, it attracted shoegazers, indie-, and noise-rock artists looking for a synthesis of modern stability and vintage aesthetics. In the short time it was produced, and in the years since, the Talman gained a quietly devoted cult following.

While the Talman name lived on in a line of acoustic hybrids, the TM1730M reviewed here marks the first return to the original solidbody configuration since 1998. And while the 1730 and its Telecaster-inspired cousins the TM1702 and TM1803M are distinctly vintage-Fender inspired, electronics and hardware including Seymour Duncan Five-Two pickups and Gotoh locking machine heads makes them wonderfully playable and practical instruments that convey classic—and classy—style with a visual vibe that’s very much their own.

Through a crunchy Orange OR50 and even various solid-state practice amps, the Talman never sounded brittle.

Throwback Body, Fresh Hardware
Crafted in Japan, the new Talman Prestige series is very well made. The bolt-on 25.5″ maple neck has a familiar-feeling “C” profile, 22 medium-sized frets, and black dot-inlays. The ITL-PRO tremolo bridge and block assembly is situated in a body cavity so you can adjust the spring tension by removing the back plate. Each bridge saddle is individually adjustable for height and string length, and with the easy-to-access bullet truss-rod, intonation chores are a snap. The tremolo arm screws into place and will remain in a fixed position with a complete clockwise rotation. The five-way pickup selection switch is configured like a Stratocaster’s, but there is only one tone knob to adjust the output. This knob rests, in a unique configuration, on the input jack plate, with the remaining controls mounted atop a two-ply black and white pickguard. The official finish label is “Vintage White,” although it’s closer to cream than an authentically yellowed white. Nevertheless, it looks great and is a beautiful compliment to the maple neck.

A Tone Before Its Time
If you’re like me and play mostly classic Fender models, the Talman will feel immediately familiar. I’m a big Stratocaster guy, so it’s difficult to avoid making comparisons between the two models. But before I ever plugged in, it was hard not to miss how uniquely comfortable this guitar is: the length of neck in relation to the body, the balance, the light-but-substantial alder body—they all conspire to make this guitar feel uncommonly natural whether you have it slung around your shoulder or you’re sitting on the couch.

My only very minor (and highly personal) complaint about the design is that the vibrato arm sits a little high for my taste. I’d rather not stray so far from the strings just to add a quick vibrato flourish. It does, however, provide the leverage to generate deeper pitch warble, which is great for My Bloody Valentine chord glides. If you want to drop the arm closer to the body, adjusting the spring tension or swapping the arm out entirely are possibilities. Tuning stability was also excellent when I put the tremolo arm to work. The Gotoh machine heads held fast under the strain of aggressive vibrato work, in slack tunings, and in combinations of the two.

With a ’65 Twin Reverb reissue dialed up clean, the Seymour Duncan Five-Two pickups were clear and bell-like. The alnico 2 and 5 magnets conspired to deliver snappy bass response, with a slightly tame and tethered but clear treble from the high strings. Paired with the Twin Reverb, the Talman dished up a punchy flavor fit for the Stones heartier blues entrees. The overtones in moveable open chords sounded out and resonated clearly—a total delight with a healthy heap of amp reverb. And though pickups are a tad darker compared to my Stratocaster’s Fender Custom Shop ’69 pickups, the Duncan single-coils are balanced and colorful.

Moving from the Twin Reverb to other amps highlighted the Talman’s agreeable, more flexible nature. Through a crunchy Orange OR50 and even various solid-state practice amps, the Talman never sounded brittle. The guitar is also very well suited to pedals. Paired with an Analogman Sun Face, the Talman sawed through early David Gilmour leads—sounding rich and slicing, and generating impressive sustain in the process. This environment also revealed the high quality of controls like the volume pot, which has a nice, even taper and the sensitivity to wrangle the Sun Face from banshee scream to overdriven growl.

The Verdict
A lot of folks might be disappointed that Ibanez took such a Fender-inspired—some might say conservative—approach to resurrecting the Talman. And who knows? Maybe a revival of the sparkle-painted, lipstick-tubed ’90s models is just around the corner (hint, hint, Ibanez). But whatever the Talman Prestige lacks in flash it makes up in rock solid playability, comfort, quality, and great sounds. And while the nearly $1,200 bucks you’ll part with to make it your own isn’t small change, this is a guitar that leaves you yearning for little once you’ve plugged it in.

Ampeg PF-50T

Ampeg’s huge impact on the world of bass amplification is no secret. The SVT is a standard onstage rig and the B-15 is a staple in recording studios the world over. Not only has Ampeg set the bar high for the rest of the amp realm over the years, but for themselves in their quest to push forward in designs and features, yet maintain a respectful nod to the tone and builds that made them so significant in the first place. Enter the new all-tube PF-50T—a flexible, rock-solid amp that captures the spirit of Ampeg classics of the past, and offers an innovative feature that should be an industry standard.

Same but Different
The “PF” in PF-50T is short for Portaflex—a salute to Ampeg’s iconic flip-top B-15 head. The design of the PF-50T is super slick, yet still brings back memories of the old days with its two massive transformers and a steel cage that houses five tubes on top. Not to be confused with the B-15 Heritage (the flip-top reissue in the family), the PF-50T has been engineered to bridge the gap between the B-15 and the SVT with moderate power, tube warmth, and more than a hint of saturation available.

The definition really pops, and clean, articulate fingerstyle players will be right at home.

The 20-pound PF-50T has two inputs—one for passive instruments and the other with a 15 dB cut for active instruments. The control set is easy enough: gain, Ampeg’s well-known ultra-hi and ultra-low EQ buttons, bass, midrange, a 5-way midrange sweep, treble, and, finally, a master volume. The rear panel is also uncomplicated, with the exception of one very cool feature: twin XLR outs.

Why would Ampeg put two DIs on the PF-50T? Well, the first DI can be run either pre or post EQ. The second DI is an output straight from the transformer, which is basically what you would send to a cabinet. Let’s say you are allowed two channels in the FOH console at your next gig. Your engineer can have both your untouched clean signal and your dialed-in tone to work with. Or say you’re silent recording at home with the PF-50T (no cab required!).

You can run both DIs at the same time—one clean and one dirty. You don’t have to have a splitter to lay down one clean take while you are using the amp to saturate tone. Whether you’d like to blend the signal or need to fix something later on the clean track, the option is there. Pretty killer.

It’s in There
When powering up the amp, the indicator light illuminates red in standby mode and purple for go mode. I plugged in a few instruments for this review: a vintage Fender P, a Music Man StingRay, and a Fender Bass VI. And to keep it in the family, I paired the PF-50T with a 1965 Ampeg 1×15.

I let the PF-50T warm up for a good 20 minutes. The glow of the two massive 6L6s, the 12AU7, and the pair of 12AX7s was a welcome sight for an old soul like myself. (Word of caution: The steel housing for the tubes gets very hot.) The bass I sort of had to plug in first was the vintage P strung with flats. I eased the bass to 1 o’clock, engaged the ultra-low switch, and left the rest of the controls at noon. For a moment, I closed my eyes and I was in the snake pit at Hitsville, U.S.A., hoping to open them and see Smokey Robinson writing lyrics next to me. It was all the vintage warmth you would expect. And when scrolling through the mid sweeps, it’s a snap finding a sweet spot to your liking.

But what if you aren’t a rock or Motown sort of player? Well, the PF-50T can produce great slap tones too. Engaging both the ultra-hi and ultra-low switches, scooping some of the mids, and with bass and treble both around 3 o’clock, the amp sings a different tune. The definition really pops, and clean, articulate fingerstyle players will be right at home. The active StingRay was a littlemuch for the amp because its tone is a bit pointed to begin with, but I was able to tone things down a touch with the EQ and keep its snap and pop with a great balance of rumble.

The Fender VI was a lot of fun with the PF-50T when I dimed the gain and pushed the amp into nasty mode. The tube saturation was really pleasing and the user-friendly EQ made the 6-string jump out pretty quickly. I should again stress the coolness factor of being able to run the dual DIs, especially with an instrument like the VI that lends itself to the new era of guitarless duos.

The Verdict
It’s not hard to fall in love with the tube tone of the PF-50T. For all this amp gives bassists, however, there are some features Ampeg left off that some players are accustomed to—like an effects loop, tuner out, and headphone out. While it might not boast a host of bells and whistles, the PF-50T excels where it’s supposed to. It’s a straightforward amp with plenty of power and tube-tone nirvana for the stage or studio. Don’t take my word for it—get to an iso room and test this little gem out yourself.

Carl Martin Octa-Swtich MK3

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Although the Octa-Switch MK2 still feels fresh in our memory, Carl Martin recently released the MK3, a streamlined edition of the popular MK2. At a street price of around $427, it’s easily the most affordable switcher in our roundup.

The MK3 is more pedalboard-friendly than the two previous incarnations—primarily because it utilizes two rows of footswitches, rather than one long row. And while Carl Martin has stuffed a lot of functions into less space, the jacks are still spaced out wide enough to patch in the right-angle plugs used for most pedalboard applications (something I wasn’t able to do with the other two switchers in this roundup).

I was a little surprised when I opened the box and didn’t see a power supply. But the Octa-Switch MK3 is compatible with a standard 9V adapter, and I just daisy chained it to my pedalboard’s existing power supply. (Unlike the MK2, the MK3 can’t be powered by batteries.)

The Octa-Switch MK3 offers eight loops (the last loop is stereo) and eight banks—which should be more than enough for most players. In addition to the eight loop footswitches, there’s a switch for bypassing the unit completely.

The MK3 has a decidedly mechanical, analog feel—largely due to the absence of a readout and the eight dip switches above each preset footswitch. The dipswitches correspond to the eight send/returns and the pedal; you route through them. You determine which pedals make up a given preset by turning the dipswitches off or on. I’m not a huge fan of dipswitches, but here the design is more intuitive, and arguably faster, than scrolling through a small screen. On the top corner of the control panel are eight small blue LEDs that correspond to loops 1-8 and light up to show which loop is activated on a selected preset. There are also two rows of dipswitches for external switching of amp channels or amplifier reverb. These, too, can be assigned to work with a selected loop.

It took me about a minute to program a relatively simple rig consisting of a Mesa/Boogie Trem-O-Verb and several pedals. For a rhythm preset, I used a Boss CE-2 and Ibanez AD-9 going into the amp’s clean channel. For leads, I created two presets—a Mad Professor Bluebird overdrive/delay going into the amp’s clean channel and an Ibanez TS-9 used as a boost going into the amp’s high gain channel. I also used a Boss TU-2 tuner, though, oddly, there is no dedicated tuner out on the Octa-Switch MK3. The presets all worked flawlessly and switching was immediate and pop free.

The MK3 lacks MIDI, the ability to change the order of pedals in a chain, and the ability to switch on individual pedals while running a preset. But while it may lack some of the features that distinguish and add wow factor to the Boss and RJM, I didn’t mind not having those options. If I knew I’d need an additional boost for a lead preset to suit a different playing environment, I’d simply add the boost to an existing preset or program a new one on the spot. It doesn’t take more than a second to flick the dipswitch. Above all else, the MK3 is fast and easy.

Though it may lack some fancy digital features, the MK3 is capable of a lot more than just switching pedals on and off. You can use it as a killer A/B switcher to route two guitars into two separate amps, with each pair attached to its own group of effects. Just bypass the standard in/out controls and patch everything through the loop jacks.

The mechanical simplicity of the Octa-Switch MK3 is a beautiful thing. The intuitive design means neophytes can get started fast without consulting a manual. And it’s simple enough to make troubleshooting a breeze in performance situations. In an era in which many switchers are as complex as some multi-effects units, the MK3’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get layout cuts through all the frivolities. This bad boy lets you just program the configurations you’ll actually need rather than bog you down with hypothetical possibilities you’ll never actually use.