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Monday, June 13, 2016

Everything Guitar Network Shop Mods!
Copperhead Audio Electronics Capacitors
Upgrade Fender Tube Guitar Amplifiers

Everything Guitar Network

Price: variable
Likes: clean up your amp sound
Dislikes: someone has to install ‘em
Wow Factor: clean, more open tone
More Info: Copperhead Audio

by John Gatski
  Like the hot-rodding of cars that has gone on for as long as there have been cars, guitar amp hacks and mods have been pursued for that ultimate “golden tone.“ Most mods from amp specialists or the tech-savvy do-it-yourself-er are designed to give that vintage tube tone from the 1950s-60s, the so called "golden age."
  The Copperhead Audio custom capacitors are designed, according to Owner Doug Weisbrod, to improve the tone of any amplifier — from a Fender Tweed to Silverface, to Marshall JCM’s and everything in between. Yes, even the new Fender reissues — such as the Deluxe, Twin and Princeton Reverb 65’s — are candidates.
 These custom cap kits were developed, according to Weisbrod, because amplifier mod/repair customers were constantly asking him if there were small signal capacitors available that would be upgrades for the stock capacitors.

CAE offers custom voicing caps in different values

  In the audio capacitor world, there are the “audiophile capacitors.” “orange drops,” stock replacements like “Illinois Capacitors,” and recreations of the “Fender Blues,” and the “Marshall mustard's.” That’s about it. The replacements are cheap metal film types and the recreations suffer from the same flaws as the originals. The “audiophile capacitors” are often poorly made, standard manufacture variety that offer little in the way of sonic improvements. They are just made from more expensive materials, that may offer some benefit, but they do not take advantage of construction techniques that will make them  the best in terms of sound.
  The effect of tone capacitors on guitar amp tone is significant, yet subjective. One kind of tone may be liked by one owner, but the next guy may not like it at all. That is why making a good cap that has wide appeal is tricky.

Bit by the Copperhead
  Capacitors are an integral part of many audio components including guitar amps. They are used in the power supply, phase coupling and tone stages of tube guitar amplifiers. Most capacitors are made from electrolytic, film and foil, metalized film, ceramic or mica.
  Copperhead Audio capacitors are made from a special material formula created by Weisbrod, and are claimed to the lower the Equivalent Series Resistance (ESR), Dielectric Absorption and Corona effect, all of which Weisbrod believes can negatively affect the sound of an audio circuit.

A CAE Fender amp "cap" mod kit

  Tone cap mods in guitar amps have been offered for many years, but Weisbrod said the Copperhead caps open up the midrange/treble sound of an amp — with a significant smoothing  — and the change tightens the bass to the point that you can turn up the tone controls to lessen the filtering effect when it is used extensively. Copperhead Audio capacitors also increase sustain by reducing ESR and mechanical distortion when the part is under load, Weisbrod added.

The upgrade
  So the guinea pig for the Copperhead mod was my 1966 blackface Deluxe Reverb (AB763). Doug had done a basic tune up, a year before, which was mostly filter cap replacement and a few resistors. With a Jensen Neodymium speaker and stock value tubes, the Deluxe Reverb sounded like a typical BF Deluxe, but I could never use the treble control to open up the sound because the midrange sound gets too hard. Most stock Deluxe Reverbs sound the same in stock form.
  With the Copperhead cap mod, Doug replaced all the tubes, and replaced all the tone and bypass caps with the Copperheads.  He only did just the reverb channel, since it is more widely used in the Deluxe Reverb amps. According to Weisbrod, my Deluxe Reverb amplifier was received with the original Fender “Blue” capacitors. Also original ceramic values of .47pF (Bright) and .10pF (Reverb Filter) were there. There was one non-original capacitor which was a .01uF “Orange Drop” at the phase inverter input. That should have been a ceramic .001uF.
  The Copperhead mod’s sonic improvement becomes more evident as you turn up the amp. In stock form, the congested dynamics of the 6V6’s limited output, combined with stock caps, made for reduced dynamics. The Copperhead mod’s sonic output was not so grungy.
  Ultimately, Weisbrod did two rounds of mods: Round 1 — the Fender “Blues” were replaced with the CAE Coppers. The non-original Orange Drop was swapped with a CAE Black .001uF. The ceramic .47pF and .10pF were replaced with Silver Mica. Doug said Ceramic and Silver Mica both have a gritty audio nature and have both been used by Fender over the years. Silver Mica has a lower ESR and, therefore, allows a bit more sustain. Silver Mica caps are also more expensive than ceramic types — which is why Fender prefers to use ceramics. Currently there is no film and foil improvement for these values — with the exception of the old Phillips film and foil polystyrene and aluminum capacitors. While these are better-sounding materials than Silver Mica or Ceramic, they have a variably higher ESR, since the leads are “laid in” rather than soldered — making the internal lead connection resistance rather high.

Initial impressions
  To make sure that the tube change was not changing the sonic variable more than the caps in the Deluxe, I listened to the mod with the old tubes and the new tubes. Other than taming some noise, the tubes did not make that much difference. After the first phase of the mod, I played the Deluxe with a number of guitars using my normal demo Wireworld Micro-Solstice guitar cable, the most transparent cable I have ever used (excellent high frequency extension and zero microphonics). Guitars included the first-year production Fender Mark Knopfler Stratocaster with Fender 60th anniversary ’54 pickups, a 2001 American Series Telecaster and a modified 2008 Gibson  Les Paul Studio (Seth Lover pickups and a Bumblebee Cap kit /CTS pot upgrade).
  Upon playing the Knopfler Strat, I immediately noticed a tighter, focused sound from the 50-year old Deluxe using the CAE caps. I could finally turn up the treble controls without it sounding so harsh. Upper-end detail from lead picking, as well as bridge pickup rhythm, was so much more apparent with the cap upgrade.
  On the negative side, the amp lost a bit of the compressed warmth sound that the blackface are noted for, and there was still a tinge of midrange grittiness. I enjoyed the openness and the ability to use the tone control, but I wanted back some of that 6V6 character. A delicate balance, to be sure, but I was confident that Doug could get me there.

Tweaking the caps
  On the second round, the Silver Mica .250pF treble input capacitor was replaced with a CAE Black in both channels.  Doug said that during this round of cap tweaking, he made a switch to the CAE Black .250pF, which he believed would cure the midrange grittiness of the stock .250 pF Silver Mica cap.
  After a week of tweaking the Deluxe, Doug returned it to me for good. And wow, what a difference the final selection of tone caps made! As mentioned, the bass was much tighter, yet full,  to the point where you could actually turn the control to  “5.” The same with the treble control. The high-mid and low-treble opened up, as I could hear more string/pickup harmonics, yet it retained the vintage tune smoothing that we all love in a Fender BF.
  Upon playing the Knopfler Strat, I immediately noticed a tighter, focused sound from the 50-year old Deluxe using the CAE caps. I could finally turn up the treble controls without it sounding so harsh. Upper-end detail from lead picking, as well as bridge pickup rhythm, was so much more apparent with the cap upgrade.
  It took me a while to dial in exactly where my favorite tone control positions needed to be with different guitars — since the old settings no longer applied. Instead of treble between 2 and 3, it could now run at 4-5, depending on guitar. The bass I could now run at 5 without the flabby tone that the old caps imparted. This also improved the lower-mid’s impression.
  On all guitars, the opening up the top allowed me to hear more of the guitar, and less of the filter effect of the stock cap amp circuit. My Yamaha SA-2100 ‘335 clone, with Seymour Duncan Seth Lover humbuckers, really came alive with the Copperhead mod, less midrange edge and more air, yet still classic tube.
  The Mark Knopfler Strat — with the limited edition Anniversary 54 pickups, the best set of Strat pickups ever made (IMHO) — rang like a bell with the cap upgrade. BTW, the Copperhead mod’s sonic improvement becomes more evident as you turn up the amp. In stock form, the congested dynamics of the 6V6’s limited output, combined with stock caps, made for reduced dynamics. The Copperhead mod’s sonic output was not so grungy. Shall I dare say, the old Deluxe was, er, articulate. If you swap out the 6V6’s for a set of 6L6’s and rebias (which I did try), the dynamics improve even further.

The verdict
  The Copperhead capacitor modification for the vintage 1965 Fender Deluxe Reverb reverb channel resulted in a nearly perfect balance of vintage, yet truer-to-the-guitar/pickup tone, than the stock, replacement tone caps that were in the amp. The parts cost, excluding new tubes, was $240, the labor was another $200. But that is with Copperhead Audio doing the actual work. Do-it-yourself-ers can save the $200, and according to Weisbrod, those who are handy with a soldering iron and can read a schematic, it is pretty easy to swap out the caps.
  All types of guitar and pickup combinations revealed the improved sonic transmission of the Copperhead Cap mod, including the Les Paul, a P90-equipped SG Special, Gibson L5 jazz guitar, and Telecaster. The upper-end harmonics of my Mark Knopfler Stratocaster showed a marked decrease in mid harshness, but yet had a more-open top-end without being edgy. You could turn up the tone control and let through more treble. Equally impressive was the dynamic tightening of the bass, which also allowed me to turn up the bass tone control.
  Kudos to Copperhead Owner Doug Weisbrod for coming up with an inexpensive way (if you do the work yourself) to improve the tone of classic and modern amps. I can’t wait to try the mod in a modern amp, such as an Orange or Marshall. This cap kit is an Everything Guitar Network Grade A Award winner.
  Copperhead Electronics is located in Manassas, Va. The web site is http://www.copperheadaudioengineering.com. Phone number is 540-439-3162. ©All original articles on this site are the intellectual property of the Everything Guitar Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Guitar Pedal Review!
Gizmo Audio Sawmill Plus,
RIPSAW Distortion Pedals

Everything Guitar Network

Price: $180 each
Likes: deeper OD and distortion tones
Dislikes: no internal battery connection
Wow Factor! USA-made pedals nail the OD
More info: GizmoAudio

by Matt Rubenstein
  These made in USA guitar pedals that were sent to me for review - the Sawmill Jr. medium/light overdrive”, and the “RIPSAW” high-gain distortion, are both the brainchildren of Charles Luke, president/designer of Georgia-based GizmoAudio.
  A wise man once said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” And these pedals are, literally, inventions – as the Sawmill Jr. is a patented design. And, because Mr. Luke, an engineering graduate of Georgia Institute of Technology, could not find the sound from the current crop of OD’s that he was hearing in his head, his invention was also a “necessity.” And considering that there are hundreds of different overdrives available on the market today, being awarded a patent on an overdrive design is, by itself, an impressive feat.

  Both the Ripsaw and Sawmill Jr. are priced at $180 (direct order from the GizmoAudio web site.) , and are similar looking, high-end pedals. The key to the Sawmill Jr.’s signature OD sound is its MOSFET design, containing both internal bias for the locating the MOSFET’s “Sweet Spot” and circuitry for canceling non-musical intermod that allows for breakup that does retains the the guitar tone’s upper-end harmonics without the excessive “smear” that most pedals exhibit. The medium range OD features a 15V internal power supply for high-headroom. The controls include Drive, Tone, Bass Cut, and Volume.
 The RIPSAW is similar in its design and control layout, but it dishes out much higher amounts of drive for full-on distortion. Both pedals need external (power from a pedalboard or standalone wall wart DC power supply).

The audition
  For this review I used a Carvin Bolt hardtail “Strat” loaded with Lollar Tweed low output single coil pickups. I ran it into a Rivera Pubster 25, 25 watt 1 x 10 combo. I would consider the amp a Fender Princeton/Deluxe Reverb hybrid spin based on the power section of 2 6v6 power tubes. I ran the amp clean. This clean, fundamental set-up provides an easier way to isolate and identify the sound, and gain, coming from the actual pedals - as there is only negligible gain coming from the guitar and amp. I also kept the tone controls on the amp at Noon across the board - again, in an attempt to isolate the actual sound of the pedals. 
  Initially, there were a few design elements of these pedals that I felt were a little idiosyncratic, and created a slight “learning curve” in placing them on my board, and dialing them in. First off, the Input and output jacks are reversed from the typical location on pedals with top jacks. I was still able to wire them up side by side with 8” patch cables – which would be the most demanding scenario for patch cable length.  But the pedals were a little tight next to each other. But this could be easily remedied by running slightly longer patch cables (basically anything 9”or longer would be perfect), or by running either one of them between conventionally wired pedals.

  The Sawmill Jr. overdrive is a very versatile pedal that can, on a busy pedal-board, serve as both an “end of the chain” clean boost/tone sweetener/light overdrive, as well as a post dirt “refinery.”

  The other idiosyncrasy I discovered was the way that the volume control was tapered on the Sawmill Jr. With the gain dimed on the Sawmill, the tone at Noon, and the volume on “0”, the pedal was still mildly boosting the signal. This ultimately did not matter at all to me as even at this setting, the pedal was still giving me just the right, subtle volume boost I wanted. And I found the most useful drive settings to be between 12:00 and 3:00 anyhow, and at those drive settings, unity gain is easily achievable, if it is even desired.
  And finally, neither one of these pedals take batteries. But let’s face it, unless you are powering a Germanium Fuzz-Face with a carbon battery to get that extra 5 to 10% out of it, there simply is no need, or want for that matter, to use batteries to power pedals anymore. And these pedals also have unusually high power requirements for analog drive pedals, so a battery is really a non-option here anyhow. But, above said, the sonic attributes that both these pedals bring to the table far outweigh these slight, and very easy to deal with; just niggles.

Cutting with the Sawmill Jr.
  “Touch sensitivity” is undoubtedly a term thrown around in many pedal companies’ marketing jargon, and also a term that gets endless play and discourse on guitar gear forums. But, that said, The Sawmill Jr. Medium/Light Overdrive is certainly touch sensitive. With the gain at 3:00, the tone at Noon, the volume set to unity gain, and the bass cut toggle “off”, a gentle pluck of the guitar string yields absolutely no noticeable distortion. And as you start to dig in more, you notice various shades of mild “grit” that stay quite true to your fundamental tone – along with a slight thickening, as well as a touch more sustain. I found the subtle thickening ideal for my single coil equipped guitar. But if this particular effect is not desired, or if you use humbuckers, the “bass cut” toggle switch will afford you a different voicing. 
  While obviously not the same, the Sawmill Jr. can have a similar effect on your sound as a high quality, subtle, transparent compressor.  You hear more “information” coming off your fingers and your pick, and you get a bit more sustain - just like a compressor.  In fact, I would say that the Sawmill Jr. would be a good choice for guitarists who have been through several compressors before finally coming to the conclusion that sometimes, you just don’t want your pick attack “limited”, at all, by a compressor - like yours truly. 

Inside the Gizmos

  As far as overall gain range is concerned, I would place the Sawmill Jr. between a clean boost and a light overdrive. For example, it has less gain/saturation range than a stock Tube Screamer. And while the Tube Screamer, with its midrange emphasis, excels at “pushing” other pedals and amps - the “mid-flat” Sawmill Jr., really shines when being “pushed”.  The Sawmill Jr. made any dirt box I ran into it sound either equally as good but just different, or just flat out better. When running an original whiteface Pro co Rat into the Sawmill Jr., the iconic grit of the Rat smoothed out, the touch responsiveness improved, there was more sustain, more focus, and there was more body. It also had a very similar effect being pushed by a Keeley Modded Boss DS-1 
  One of the many guitar sounds this reviewer has chased over the years is Sir David Gilmour’s soaring Big Muff fueled lead guitar sound. And part of Gilmour’s “secret tone sauce”, in addition to having Pete Cornish on retainer, is that he ran his Big Muff into an overdrive/boost pedal - most notably the B.K. Butler Tube driver, or the Colorsound Overdriver.  But the “wrong” overdrive after a Big Muff, regardless of how you dial it in, can make the Big Muff sound “choked”, unfocused, and messy.  But this was certainly not the case with the Sawmill Jr. It really shines in this application. Placed after the Big Muff, the Sawmill Jr. smoothed out the grit without choking the sound, increased its focus, thickened it and made it sound even huger, and increased the touch sensitivity. 

RIPSAW tears it open
  The RIPSAW distortion pedal has a similar tonality to the Sawmill Jr. overdrive. But they don’t sound the same. I heard a slight midrange emphasis on the RIPSAW that I didn’t hear from the Sawmill Jr. Not anywhere near the pronounced iconic “mid-bump” of a Tube Screamer, but more of a subtle “seasoning”.  And this reviewer found that subtle mid-bump to be just what the doctor ordered when pushing the Sawmill Jr. The RIPSAW also happens to have the same exceptional “touch sensitivity” as the Sawmill Jr. And in regards to gain range, the RIPSAW is capable of considerably more gain than the Sawmill Jr. But I would still not classify the RIPSAW as a “high gain” distortion.   I would consider my Big Muff, my Rat, and my modded DS-1, high gain distortions. And all of these pedals are capable of considerably more gain/saturation than the Ripsaw. But if you want sublime, singing, mid-gain distortion – look no further than the RIPSAW.  
  I would consider my Big Muff, my Rat, and my modded DS-1, high gain distortions. And all of these pedals are capable of considerably more gain/saturation than the Ripsaw. But if you want sublime, singing, mid-gain distortion – look no further than the RIPSAW. 
  One of the most desirable guitar sounds this particular reviewer has ever heard, is the sound Larry Carlton achieved on his seminal “Larry Carlton – Last Night” live album. During that phase of his career, Mr. Carlton was not using his trademark Gibson ES-335. He was using a single coil EMG loaded Valley Arts hardtail “Strat”, into his Dumble amplifier. And just as the creator of the RIPSAW refers to the sound of his pedals as “clean distortion”, that is precisely how I would describe Larry Carlton’s sound on this album. And while myself, being a mere mortal, will never be able to play like Larry Carlton, I was able to enter his amazing “sonic arena” with the RIPSAW in my set-up. And then get even “closer to the stage” running the RIPSAW into the Sawmill Jr.

The verdict
  In summation, these GizmoAudio OD's are two unique, and great sounding drive pedals. The Sawmill Jr. overdrive is a very versatile pedal that can, on a busy pedal-board, serve as both an “end of the chain” clean boost/tone sweetener/light overdrive, as well as a post dirt “refinery.” Throughout my own, personal pedal odyssey, these are two tricks that very few ponies can pull off at the same time. And the Sawmill Jr. overdrive can pull off both these tricks with aplomb. And the RIPSAW distortion truly provides what its creator claims as “clean distortion.” By itself, it occupies a very musical, and hard to find, place in the “distortion spectrum.”  And when “pushing” the Sawmill Jr., just like everything else, the RIPSAW sounds even better. Overall, both pedals get our Everything Audio Network Grade A Award.

  Matt Rubenstein is a guitar player, and resident pedal reviewer at the Everything Guitar Network. He also spent 20 years in the pro audio industry.