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Music

The legend of 'Trace Elliot Watts' is that they are louder than anyone else's. Any electronic engineer will happily tell you that's utter rubbish,-  a watt is a watt.  On the other hand Hi-Fi buffs and musicians will start coming out with endless tales of amps that are 'louder' than they are supposed to be, as happened in a recent discussion on the marvellous Basschat Forum.

Its a fact that you have to walk a long way to find any musician who has played through a Trace Elliot amplifier and didn't think it was loud enough.

So here's my perspective and an explanation of why not all watts are created equal.

Trace Stack

The short answer is marketing.

Back in  the eighties, keen to flog more product, Amstrad came up with the ideal of 'music power' which rated their stereos according to their capacity to handle transients, like cymbal crashes and rimshots. This made them appear at least twice as powerful as amps rated by their 'RMS' capacity. Oh how we laughed at tiny silver plastic music centres claiming to put out 100Watt (peak music power). Of course it was Alan Sugar who laughed longest - all the way to the bank...

From then on, it a simple 'wattage rating' has never been enough to accurately judge how loud an amp is in a real setting, because manufacturers use all sorts of formulas an ways of assessing power... 'Peak Power', 'Total System Power' and 'Peak Music Power Output'...

(Lets just mention, Trace Elliot amps are not rated for 'music power').

The longer answer is a mixture of practicality, psychology and marketing.

There was some truth in Amstrad's approach - music (at least in the old days before the 'Loudness Wars') has its peaks and troughs. The volume of an amp isn't just its ability to deal with brief transients, it relates to the bits in between as well. Today virtually every consumer amplifier, from tiny desktop speakers up, quotes some sort of 'calculated, theoretical, maximum transient power rating'.

If you really want to know, objectively, how powerful an amplifier is, you typically feed it a 'sine wave' signal, increase it until it is not quite distorting from being too loud. This power is usually stated as the 'continuous route mean square output power' or 'continuous RMS power'.

Imagine a valve amp and a transistor amp, both being fed a pure sine wave such that they are almost starting to clip. Lets assume this is at the same power level for both amps, so on paper they both have the same continuous RMS power. This signal will give you the longest constant outpout - all day long, not just for a crescendo.

Even with this, amplifier manufacturers can play their marketing games. Distortion is measured as 'Total Harmonic Distortion', given as a percentage. Some people rate at 0.01% THD, some at 0.1%, usually at 1% THD which is pretty much inaudible. Some even rate at 10% THD, at which point you will have no trouble hearing that the sound is 'changed' by the amp being pushed hard.

Let's consider a pair of Bass Amplifiers, one transitor, one valve

Play bass through both amps and turn up. Push the valve amp into clipping on the loudest bits and it will sound rich, push the transistor amp into clipping and it will sound harsh. They might have the same THD, but the valve amp will be 'easier' to listen to (that's why 97.8% of guitarists love an overdriven valve amp tone).

This also means that you can't have the transistor amp turned up as loud for the quieter bits as the valve amp, as the transistor amp sounds overloaded when you dig in.

So the amps have identical wattage ratings, but the valve amp can be played in a way that is louder. Effectively it is compressing the signal upwards at the cost of distortion, but a type of distortion people generally like.

More Power!

Also, some amps have power supplies with undersized transformers or smoothing capacitors, so when played hard the voltage 'droops' and overall power drops. Quite simply, a quality amplifier can pump up the volume for longer.

And there's more!

Other things affect volume; it's easy for a well designed speaker cab to double the volume for example.

There's a famous test on line where a Fender HRD (40W), Vox AC30 (30W) and Marshall stack (100W)  are compared and they come out in that order - yes folks, the AC30 is louder than the Marshall stack. The numbers were 124.6 dB, 124.1 dB and 119.5 dB. Close, but enough to hear the difference between the stack and the two combos.

www.harmonycentral.com/marshall-100-watt-stack-vox-ac30-fender-volume/

It's not just speaker design. I have a Vox Valvetronix which is marketed as a 20W amp, but it has a 'power control' (it's a modelling amp) and you can actually turn it up to 30 watts... so not all headline wattage ratings are exaggerated!

But does Power make much difference anyway?

The biggest pitfall is that, at usual volumes (i.e. not dead quiet or super loud) a doubling of perceived volume requires a ten-times increase in power. I've played a 1-watt battery powered amp through a JCM800 1x12" cab and it was way to loud to play in the living room. Anyone with a Blackstar Fly (3W) can test this!

Most bass amps fall between 150W and 500W, with outliers  at 100W and 1000W and above. The difference between 150W and 500W RMS is pretty small and in practice the extra volume is largely down to the same thing as that valve/transistor comparison - the more powerful amps have more headroom, i.e. you can play them significantly louder without distortion.

Sorry guys, your 1000W mega-amp is, fundamentally, only four time louder than spotty kid's 10W practice amp... through the same speakers.

Back to Trace Elliot Watts

As for Trace Elliot watts, I think the legend (or myth if your are a sceptic) is down to five things:

  • Honest power ratings - your can stick a sine wave into one and get the rated power out of it continuously. I know, I've done it, and actually got rather more than the rated output.
  • Good power supplies that can sustain the rated outputs and don't 'droop' excessively.
  • Mosef amplifiers that, perhaps, clip less harshly and sound closer to valve amps.
  • Well designed cabinets with quality drivers.

None of those three is exclusive to Trace Elliot, but taken together they mean a Trace amp is always going to be near the top of the pile when comparing amps of a given power rating.

Unicorn Amplifiers...

In the early days of Trace Elliot's dominance of the bass amplifier market demand for products sometimes exceeded supply of parts; it's been reported on many occasions that they just swapped in parts from other amps. I have the evidence - a '150W' combo fitted with a 200W/300W into 4 ohm power supply, but with a 150W amp board. Aware this was pushing their luck, the amp has a cooling fan fitted and the sockets for an extension cab left out, yet it still dumps over 200 watts (and more) into 8 ohms. Even so it has had to have the power transistors replaced in the past - presumably because putting 200 Watts through a 150 Watt amplifier is not a good idea in the long run.

  • This penchant for making amps with the wrong power supply when components run short, means there are 'under-rated' amps out there that really do sound louder than their ratings.

So, my guess is that these 'black swan' or 'unicorn' amps that were noticeably over-powered for their rating are the true source of the legendary 'Trace Elliot Watts'. You start with amps that are loud, and then add a few rogues that are genuinely louder than their rating.

Finally...

Good news for me, carrying out a service on my Trace Elliot 1110 combo, it came to light that it had this higher power supply. I was able to fit not just the sockets for an extension cab, but an extra pair of output transistors capable of taking the full output into 4 ohms. My 150W amp is now a 300W amp ... and that's 300 Trace Elliot Watts. Bow down, mortals...

The Boss HM-2 pedal creates the defining sound of 1980s heavy metal guitar. It also works excellently with bass guitar, unlike many other guitar-targeted distortion pedals. It's like playing through an overdrive pedal and a fuzzbox through a distortion pedal into a Marshall stack all dialled to 11...

BOSS HM 2 Pedal 4

I was distressed to find that mine did not work properly with a new external 9V supply - the status LED barely lit and the sound was feeble and barely audible. After much prodding around with a voltmeter it was clear the pedal was OK, but looking at a schematic I could see there is a resistor and a diode in the external power supply line. Around four volts were being 'lost' across the resistor. A qick google confirmed my thoughts. The diode is a protection against attaching a reversed power supply, and the 330 ohm resistor is to drop the 12V from a Boss ACA supply to around 8-9V (at the power consumption of the HM2-pedal).

BOSS HM 2 Pedal text under pedal

This may seem odd - why feed pedals on 12v then drop it to 9V to match the battery?

Back in the eighties regulated power supplies were pretty rare, the typical nine to twelve volt 'wall wart' was a hefty lump with a transformer in it that often gave as much as 16 volts or even more off load. This simple arrangement provided a degree of protection by limiting the maximum current and voltage fed to the pedal circuitry in the event of using such a cheap power supply.

Indeed back in the day I used a basic transformer with a switch for several different (unregulated) output voltages to power this and other pedals - I used to start at 6V and click the volts up in 3V steps until everything worked, I think the 9V setting was best but it probably gave rather more than 9 volts.

In the happy, modern world regulated supplies are the norm so no-one is going to put the wrong voltage into their pedals... are they? See how the old pedals have 'ACA stickers but my shine new TU-3 does not... by the way web suggestions that 'daisy chaining' power to the HM-2 is a cure are wrong, but interestingly the BEQ-7 is happy to operate on 9V.

BOSS Pedal Power Sockets

The nice well regulated no-noise PSU I had made just wasn't delivering enough juice for the HM2, but the cure was simple, once I knew the problem. I just soldered a short jumper across the dropper resistor. I did not (as some suggest) short out the diode as well - this only takes 0.6 volts but provides essential protection against connecting a reversed power supply. The great thing about this mod is that it is totally reversible, just unsolder the jumper and the pedal is back to original condition.

BOSS HM 2 Pedal Jumper Soldered across resistor

And does this work? Of course it does, let me polish my djent while the world gets ready for my metal onslaught...

BOSS HM 2 Pedal 5

The Squier Vintage Modern Jaguar Short Scale Bass

The Jaguar SS has become something of a legend among bass players, as a stand-out budget instrument even at a time when affordable instruments are of increasingly good quality.

Fender Squier Jaguar Vintage Modern Short Scale Bass
Despite being produced under Fender's budget brand of Squier in South Korea, these basses are well known for their extraordinary playability combined with great looks. Part of this is, no doubt, down to the fact they are made by for Fender by Cort whose workmanship and quality standards are very high. For an RRP around £200 (as of 2019) you get a ridiculously good instrument for your money. The Jaguar is also stunningly beautiful (in my humble opinion) being based on the Jaguar guitar, which is rather chunkier than the Precision and Jazz bass shapes.

The bass is a short scale instrument - don't believe the guff that this means it is for students, guitarists and people of small stature! Some thirty years ago I played a short-scale Fender Mustang bass and it was one of the most fun instruments I ever handled, and that's why I tried out the Jag SS - I instantly discovered how comfortable it is to play and how it flatters your abilities! I'm 6' 2" with long fingers and have several 24-fret full scale length basses, so I don't struggle with a long scale, but I find the short scale bass is much harder to put down. Partly this is due to lower string tension, which makes playing less tiring and gives a deep, warm tone.

Obviously some corners have to be cut to keep to down the price, beyond simply outsourcing manufacture. In the case of the Jaguar SS, this is partly achieved by leaving out the additional control plates and active circuitry of the higher end Jaguar basses. But you still get things like a lovely fast neck and rolled fingerboard edges which give the bass its playability.

There is one widely recognised weakness, though. The split P-bass pickup has a great driving tone that can give you a good taste of real Precision bass rumble. In contrast the bridge J-bass pickup has a low output and a distinct lack of 'bite' or 'honk'. Many owners replace this pickup with an aftermarket one, say by Jim Dunlop or Di Marzio, but this could add 40-50% to the price of the bass. There is a cheap alternative that works very well.

Supercharging the Jaguar SS Bridge Pickup

First, go on eBay and obtain some 5mm diameter by 3mm thick  neodymium magnets, you will need eight of these.

Unplug the bass and loosen off the strings - you don't need to remove them - and unscrew the four pickup screws. With a little effort you shoudl be able to pull out the pickup. Leaving it wired to the instrument, peel off the backing foam that holds the two springs in place and put to one side. You should see two ceramic magnets either side of the pole pieces.

For the 'level one' supercharge you need to use a scalpel to clean away the wax from the ends of the pole pieces. Your new magnets will probably all be stuck together as a lone stack. Carefully wave the end of the magnet stack over the bottom of the pole pieces. One way round you will feel repulsion, the other attraction. Once you can feel the magnets being attracted into the pole pieces you know which way around they need to be fitted. Simply slide them one at a time from the end of the stack and sit one on the bottom of each pole piece. Secure in place with a drop of superglue. Reattach the foam and springs, refit the pickup and tune up. You should notice the pickup now has much more 'middle' and punches through rather better.

Gluing magnets in place on the pickup

You are likely to find it is still quite a bit less powerful than the P-bass pickup, even when set nearer to the strings. If you want super output from the pickup you can do the 'stage 2' mod instead. For this you need a block of wood to support the pickup from below while you use a small hammer and a blunt screwdriver or punch to gently tap the pole pieces down below the front surface of the pickup by about 4mm. Use the same technique to get the magnets the right way around, but this time the surface of the magnets repelled by the bottom of the pole pieces is the right one to have down as you fit them in the holes in the pickup cover. Once you have all eight in place, turn the pickup over face down on your wooden block. Gently tap the bottoms of the pole pieces until the magnets are flush with the front of the pickup cover. Because the cover helps locate the magnets you should not need any glue, unless any of the pole pieces have become loose.

Pickup with Depressed Pole Pieces

After refitting the stage 2 modded pickup you should find you can get a nice funky tone which is much closer in output to the neck pickup, also turning both pickups full up should give a rich, rounded tone. Finally you can use the bridge pickup with the tone backed off for more nasal 'honk' and less harsh sound.

If you find that with the two pickups turned full up the sound become very weak and trebley, then you have fitted the magnets upside down - the solution is obvious!

You can spot a stage two modified pickup because its pole pieces are smooth rather than having a spiral pattern on the end.

Rock on!

Stage 2 pickup installed, note the smooth pole pieces

 

 

 

The Maiden and the Bear.

 

You’d think it would be rare,

For a bear to shave his hair.

But he was lurking in his lair,

When he thought his fur was square.

 

He decided then and there,

Not a moment would he spare.

He loudly did declare,

That his fur he could not wear.

 

On his way he did then fare,

Till he reached the barbers chair.

Handling razor with great flair,

The barber shaved the big brown bear.

 

The bear tipped him rather spare,

Which wasn’t very fair,

As to shave Bear is rare –

I bet you wouldn’t dare!

 

Bear walked out down the stair,

Into the crowded square

And all the folk did stare,

Or mumble out a prayer.

 

The crowd called out the Mayor

Like a trooper he did swear,

The mayor was going no-where,

He wouldn’t face the bear!

 

Now the trumpets they did blare,

But the Bear he didn’t care,

For he was unaware,

That they called a legionnaire.

 

A soldier on a mare,

Decided he would dare,

But the bear without the hair,

Slapped the soldier, stole his mare.

 

Then the bear without the hair,

Rode the horse right out of there,

And the people everywhere,

The gossip they did share.

 

But when the bear got to his lair,

He found a maiden there.

And the Bear gave her a scare,

Because the bear was bare.

 

Now the Maid was rather fair,

And she gave the Bear a glare.

Said the Bear I do not care,

Is to shave my hair to err?

 

But she stood up to the bear,

Said your clothes may be threadbare,

Now put on your underwear.

For some clothes you need to wear.

 

Now the maiden and the bear,

They do make a handsome pair,

Riding out upon their mare,

It was a true love affair.

 

But the bear without the hair,

Got entrapped within a snare,

Which the mayor who didn’t dare,

Had baited with a pear.

 

Was it the end of the affair?

Well, the Maid who loved the Bear,

Stopped the Mayor with just a stare,

Cut the wire from the Bear!

 

But she rode off like a hare,

Left the bear just standing there.

To his lair he did repair,

Once again a solitaire.

 

So the moral for the Bear,

Who was left in deep despair,

Is that if you want an heir,

Don’t find a Maid beyond compare,

 

You need to be aware,

That a bear without his hair,

May seem so debonair

But his love life’s going no where.

 

The secret I will share,

The bear must grow his hair.

Then a lady bear I swear,

Will come and share your lair!

Deep in the Hive are they really alive?

The elder statesmen of 'space rock', Hawkwind have had more incarnations than The Doctor. For those who grew up on lineups featuring Lemmy, Bob Calvert, Nick Turner, Huw Lloyd Langton not to mention talented musicians such as Ginger Baker and Simon House, it is tempting to dismiss the last twenty five years (!) of Hawkwind's output. Thoise more recent albums have generally been more mindful and melodic, lacking the energy, drive and raw edge that characterised earlier albums, although the live band never lost its sparkle.

So what of The Machine Stops, the 2016 offering from Dr Technical and his current crew? It can be summedup easily: The Machine Stops represents a remarkable return to form! The concept of The Machine Stops is a society where people live isolated in hexagonal cells, communicatiung only over the internet and reliant on 'The Machine' to serve their needs. Naturally the protagonaist escapes to discover the outside world is 'green' and not the scorched landscape of Damnation Alley. Inevitablly the machine starts to fail. Based on (inspired by?) a century-old novella of the same name by E.M. Forster, an astonishingly accurate vision of some aspects of modern society that reflects a real current anxiety that we could all end up in our private bubbles serviced only by Amazon Drones.

Perhaps the greatest loss to Hawkwind was the departure of Bob Calvert, poet-musician he was responsible for the best of Hawkwind's short, focused rock songs, the classic example being the Hawklords album. Somehow The Machine Stops manages to capture, above all, the spirit of that classic album in rolling basslines, catchy riffs and tight lyrics. Most of all it has a continual feeling of excitement as well as some touches of humour. If this album had come out in the early 80s, very little of it would have been a great surprise. But this is not a dated album, it makes excellent use of modern production techniques and sounds. By refernecing eBay and the modern world, rather than following Forster's proto-steampunk vision Hawkwind's Machine is an extrapolation of today's world where social networks replace social interaction.

Interestingly, one lesson Brock has learned is to 'leave them wanting more' - several of the tracks woudl have been excellent starting points for the extended improvisation and exploration that characterised early Hawkwind albums, to the point where the end of some tracks actually feels too abrubt. That said, live performances of the material have been the opportunities to explore these avenues, notably and excetional extended jam book-ended by Synchronised Blue - for me the stand-out track on the album - see the footage below for proof.

 So let's run through the album and look at each track in turn.