Gear Review:  JBE Pickups HB Two/Tone

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JBE Pickups (formerly Joe Barden Pickups) manufactures a variety of guitar and bass pickups, including the HB Two/Tone humbuckers.  For nearly 20 years, I’ve been pleased with the performance of these pickups in my Klein Electric Guitar.  When it was time to upgrade the pickups in my newly acquired Kiesel Zeus (reviewed here), installing the HB Two/Tones was a no-brainer.

The HB Two/Tone is a full-sized dual-blade passive humbucker pickup designed to deliver the full-bodied tone of a humbucker and, at the flip of a switch, the tone and output of a single-coil pickup but without any of the associated buzz and hum.  JBE accomplishes this feat by using a technique called coil-tapping instead of the more common approach of coil-splitting to expand tonal options.  Instead of turning off one of the coils (coil-splitting), a switch point is created in the coil winding from which authentic single-coil tones can be achieved.  Semantics?  Not at all.  The difference is clearly audible.  The HB Two/Tone has a 6 conductor wire and requires either a DPDT mini-switch or push/pull potentiometer to activate the switch point.  Cosmetically, the only visible difference between my vintage HB Two/Tone and the new is a subtle JBE logo.  The pickups are still handmade in the USA, and the overall fit and finish is excellent.

The HB Two/Tones fit perfectly in my Zeus without requiring any routing.  Although the factory installed Holdsworth humbuckers were mounted with three screws, the guitar was also drilled to mount pickups using only two screws.  On the Zeus, the pickups are direct mounted, and I had to use a 1/8” drill bit to drill out the mounting holes on each HB Two/Tone.  If the pickups were installed using a mounting ring, I doubt this would be necessary.  I also replaced the standard volume and tone pots with push/pull pots and, as it was no longer needed for coil-splitting, the 5-way pickup selector switch with a 3-way switch.

With the HB Two/Tones installed, the Zeus really came alive.  Don’t get me wrong, the Kiesel Holdsworth pickups sounded good, but over time I just couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing.  In particular, the single coil tones, delivered via coil-splitting, lacked definition and sounded hollow and flat.  In contrast, the HB Two/Tones, even when coil-tapped, have excellent clarity and a noticeable fullness to the tone…and a ton of vibe.

The bridge HB Two/Tone delivers some of the smoothest distorted tones I’ve ever heard and is equally at home with my favorite ProCo Rat or Voodoo Lab Superfuzz.  Choose your favorite adjective to describe the midrange - thick, meaty, rich or warm - it’s all there.  The highs are creamy and smooth, and the lows are tight and defined.  When coil-tapped, the pickup effortlessly dishes out glassy clean tones reminiscent of a Tele or Strat without sounding edge-y or harsh.

The neck HB Two/Tone in standard mode sounds wonderful with distortion and produces an incredibly thick tone.  Bypass the distortion, and it yields excellent jazz tones.  When coil-tapped, the pickup delivers my favorite clean tones and is ideally suited for tones reminiscent of Andy Summers, Jamie West-Oram, and Robert Fripp.

Some players may be put off by the non-adjustability of the dual-blade design, but I have never found this to be problematic.  String-to-string balance is excellent and notes within complex chords, even with heavy distortion, are clearly distinguishable.  Touch sensitivity is superb, and the pickups respond equally well to picked or plucked notes.

The HB Two/Tones deliver superb and consistent tone in both of my guitars.  True, they are pricey at $190 each (or $326 for a set), but for serious tone chasers, it’s an option worthy of serious consideration.  Well done JBE!

Gear Review: Kiesel Zeus Z6X guitar

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Kiesel Guitars (formerly Carvin Guitars) has been producing the headless Allan Holdsworth Signature guitar for many years, but only recently started expanding their headless offerings — first with the Vader in 2015 and now with three additional models in 2018. The Zeus, as reviewed here, was introduced in January of this year.

The Zeus is custom built to order with multiple options to choose from, including; 6, 7 and 8 string standard scale and multi-scale models, 14 or 20-inch neck radius, various neck and body woods, numerous finishes, frets and pickups.  All Zeus models feature a beveled body and, unlike most headless designs, has the bridge mounted tuners recessed in the body giving the guitar a modern, yet familiar shape.  The bolt-on neck has a minimal, sculpted neck heel which allows easy access to the higher frets.  The headpiece accepts standard single ball guitar strings only — double ball (Steinberger style) strings will not work.

My Zeus arrived in flawless condition and I was immediately impressed with the top-notch build quality.  Try as I may, I could not find a single blemish on the ultra shiny British Racing Green finish.  The tung oil neck was satin smooth, the royal ebony fretboard was stunning, and the stainless steel frets were dressed expertly.  Intonation was spot on, but I found the action to be too low for my playing style.  As such, raising the action was necessary before the guitar was enjoyable to play.  The standard neck profile felt good in my hand for both chording and leads and seemed similar to a Warmoth “Standard Thin” or modern Fender American Standard Strat neck.  Some may find the top bevel on the guitar too extreme, but in person, it is visually appealing and yields an extremely comfortable playing guitar.  Thanks to traditionally placed strap buttons, the Zeus hangs perfectly balanced on a strap.

The Hipshot/Kiesel tremolo operates smoothly, returns to pitch well, and has excellent sustain.  Keep in mind this is a floating tremolo, so if you are accustomed to resting your palm on the bridge, you may have to adjust your technique to keep the tremolo in its neutral position.  Tuning is definitely fidgety, with a fair amount of back and forth balancing, but not insurmountable.  It is unfortunate Kiesel no longer offers the JCustom tremolo (a Steinberger clone) as this design was impervious to palm pressure and could be locked in place for easy tuning.  Thankfully, the Hipshot/Kiesel tremolo does not exhibit the pitch wavering/oscillation that plagues other floating tremolos.  Even with the added mass of the tuners at the rear of the tremolo assembly, the tremolo flutters nicely for those seeking to emulate David Torn or Steve Vai.

The installed Kiesel Holdsworth Passive humbucker pickups have proven to be a versatile choice and offer a variety of tones thanks to the 5-way Strat-style selector switch.  From the factory, the pickups produced a honky tone, but by adjusting the pole pieces to match the neck radius, the bridge pickup opened up to provide a rich full-bodied tone with a slight raspy edge and the neck pickup provided a balanced jazz-like tone with a touch of chime.  By further refining the height of the pole pieces on each coil, I was able to dial-in usable split coil sounds with negligible loss of gain.

Only time will tell if the Zeus is a keeper, but so far it’s been a joy to play.  

For players searching for a custom headless guitar in the $1100 and up range, the Kiesel Zeus is an excellent option worth considering.  Well done Kiesel!

The Benefits of Upgrading Your Mic Preamp(s)

If you are looking for a quick and easy way to upgrade the sound of your recordings, consider purchasing at least one high quality mic preamp - and use it to record everything! The differences between a cheap preamp and something like an API 512c may be subtle to some when A/Bing the two, but the difference can become quite profound when you start mixing multiple tracks. Believe me, it makes a big difference and can breath new life into the microphones you already own.

Case in point; I recently purchased the four API 512c pictured above and used them for tracking drums. The APIs were used on kick, snare top, and overheads to get their coloration on the whole kit. The snare bottom and toms were also mic’ed, but with other preamps. Without any EQ or compression, the tone of the kit was right there. For previous sessions, I had used the preamps on my Apogee Ensemble and was never able to get the sound I was looking for. Don’t get me wrong, the Ensemble preamps are really good, but they aren’t APIs.

On the same session, I also tracked electric guitar with the APIs. I frequently use a pair of BLUE The Ball mics, but on a whim I set up a pair of venerable Shure SM57s. I was surprised with the results - I actually preferred the sound of the 57s! The end result was some great sounding guitar tracks that worked extremely well with the drums.

API isn’t the only company making great sounding mic preamps in the $500 to $1,500 price range. I can almost guarantee that whichever one you purchase will sound significantly better than your soundcard’s built-in preamps. But don’t take my word on it, listen for yourself and find what you like.

Now, what to install in those two remaining slots?

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Crane Song HEDD 192

The only thing better than thinking about purchasing new gear is actually purchasing it!

After sitting on the fence for a couple of months weighing my opinions, I decided to pull the trigger and purchase a Crane Song HEDD 192 for the studio.

The HEDD 192 offers two channels of excellent analog to digital and digital to analog conversion as well as tube and tape emulation. My favorite feature is being able to use the emulation processing in the digital domain - just like a hardware plug-in for my DAW. Awesome! And let me just say that the emulation sounds really, really, good. I've already used it on a couple of projects and can't imagine going back.

In moderate amounts, the HEDD adds a subtle fullness or body to a recording - seeming to fill in the space around instruments and "glue" them together in a very musical way.   It's subtle, but you certainly miss it when you bypass the HEDD.  Things can get a little silly with extreme settings, but there's plenty of color to be had if you keep things reasonable.

All racked up and ready to rock!

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Studio Rats Podcast #4 - Studio Six Digital RTA

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In this episode of the podcast, I review the Studio Six Digital RTA app for iPhone.

Don't have an iPhone? No worries! I also touch on the following topics; calibrating your monitors (how to article by Bob Katz, Fletcher-Munson curves, Radio Shack SPL meter, Fuzz Measure, iPhone mic frequency responses (Faber Acoustical articles here and here), and more.

Special thanks to the band Chute for providing the music.