Electronic Guitar: EBow vs Aeon

Guitarists have been envying the sustain capabilities of other instruments probably since the first picker heard the extended notes of a pan-flute, violin, or church organ. With the advent of the electric guitar, the instrument’s sustain was enhanced by loud amps, distortion, fuzz, and compressor …

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The original sustain tool has new competition – but which is best?

Guitarists have been envying the sustain capabilities of other instruments probably since the first picker heard the extended notes of a pan-flute, violin, or church organ. With the advent of the electric guitar, the instrument’s sustain was enhanced by loud amps, distortion, fuzz, and compressor pedals, but it was the arrival of the EBow that finally allowed guitarists to hold a note indefinitely.

The EBow is the original monophonic handheld electromagnetic string driver. It was invented by Greg Heet in 1969. Using a sensor coil, driver coil, and an amplifier, it employs electricity to vibrate one string at a time, producing a sound like bowing — hence the name. The current generation of Ebow allows you to switch to a second mode that produces a higher harmonic instead of the fundamental.

Soon after its introduction to the market, Steve Hackett of Genesis employed an Ebow on “Carpet Crawlers” from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Ever since, the EBow has since enhanced string sustain for everyone from Queen to Queens of the Stone Age.

Processed through distortion, modulation, delay and reverb, and/or overdubbed through loopers, this small object can create massive electronic soundscapes, and with more and more modern players seeking new sounds, the EBow has seen a surge of popularity. Such interest was bound to encourage other manufacturers to enter the market, and TC Electronic has joined the field with the Aeon.

The Aeon also uses transducers to excite the strings but then the design veers off in a different direction, addressing three weaknesses of the EBow.

The Aeon’s brushed aluminum enclosure is more durable than the EBow’s plastic one, and its simple battery slot improves on the latter’s battery hatch, which can often pop off and/or break after dropping. Second, the Aeon’s recessed power button is unlikely to be turned on or off accidentally, unlike the flimsy toggle of the EBow that can inadvertently be engaged in transport, draining the battery before the gig. And third, in the rare case that you should accidentally push the Aeon’s button or forget to turn it off, the device automatically shuts down after it is unused for eight minutes.

The Aeon’s shape ensures a firmer grip, like holding a pencil. At first I feared its elongated profile would make it too unstable for tabletop guitarists who like to place an EBow on one of the strings. But the deep grooves of the Aeon kept it firmly in place. Its thinner profile and cheaper price should appeal to those who wish to use multiple sustainers side by side when they lay the instrument flat.

How does the sound compare? The EBow definitely puts out a stronger field, which makes it easier to get the vibrating started and seems to make the tone fatter and darker as well. I found the Aeon’s thinner sound improved with distortion and processing, though you may find it merely a matter of Les Paul versus Stratocaster.

Once the Aeon gets going it works well but starting up requires some pressure, whether from your hand pushing it down on the string, or its own weight when the guitar is lying flat. This, combined with its slightly deeper grooves, rules out the sweeping arpeggios possible with an EBow. Still, the variation in volume that comes with pressure allows an expressive up and down tremolo, as opposed to the EBow’s less sensitive sliding along the string variety.

Despite its flaws, the EBow’s rich, powerful sound makes it an essential tool in any electronic guitarist’s sonic palette. For those wanting to enter this world at a lower price point, or to add a second sustainer with a different tonal color, the Aeon is an attractive option. 

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Everything you know about pedal order is wrong

Clickbait headline aside, there have been certain “rules” about the order in which effect pedals are chained. Still, as we shall see, they beg to be broken. Often, the first question newbies to the world of stompboxes ask is, “What is the best order for a pedal signal chain?” — or, words to that, …

Clickbait headline aside, there have been certain “rules” about the order in which effect pedals are chained. Still, as we shall see, they beg to be broken. Often, the first question newbies to the world of stompboxes ask is, “What is the best order for a pedal signal chain?” — or, words to that, um, effect. There is a good place to start: Germanium fuzz first, as it needs to see an unfiltered guitar signal in order to respond properly to changes in the guitar volume knob. Next, any evelope filters, as they too respond best to the dynamics of a pure guitar signal (The fuzz would still come first but you probably wouldn’t use them together). A wah pedal would follow, as some germainum effects oscillate when a wah is sent into the input. From there, the typical order would be compressor (so as not to add noise after overdrives), boost, overdrive and/or distortion, modulation (chorus, flange, tremolo), volume pedal, delay, and finally reverb.

When it comes to putting the pedal to the metal, why not put the metal to the pedal?

However, anyone truly familiar with pedal use will then add the caveat that there are really no rules when it comes to pedal order. It comes down to what sounds good to you. Consider, for example, placing delay and reverb at the end of the chain in that order. I followed this “rule” for years and it has its charms. Placed there, the amount of perceived ambience remains constant, whether I am sending a clean or pedal-distorted signal through them. It is only recently that I realized that one key to Daniel Lanois’ evocative ambience is that he sends his Korg digital delay into an overdriven amp. Moreover, he uses the preamp of the delay to help drive said amp. Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) has also gone on record as prefering his delays before the drive of his amplifier. As I like the sound of both signal chain orders, I set up my pedalboard with the choice of a slap or long delay going from my Eventide H9 into my Jetter Jetdrive, and the same two delay options after the dirt, courtesy of my Source Audio Nemesis Delay. For even further My Bloody Valentine-style murk, try putting the reverb before the distortion. Just be aware that when you back off your guitar volume to clean up the sound, the amount of delay or reverb you hear will decrease.

Wah pedals will create two different effects when placed before or after dirt pedals. Before, the changing frequencies will drive the overdrive or distortion differently as you rock the pedal, whereas post dirt, the wah acts more like a synth filter. More adventurous guitarists might even find that they like the oscillation created when running the wah into a germanium fuzz.

I ran my tremolo pedal into my delays and reverbs, until I started playing through two amps with great sounding tremolo built in: a Supro Comet and a 1966 Fender Bandmaster. Hearing the tremolo post ambience was a revelation. While the wavering amplitude of the pedal might get lost in a long delay or large hall setting on the reverb, having it post modified the entire signal path, ambience included, creating a much more prominent tremolo effect. By keeping my tremolo pedal on my board before the delay and reverb and also having the on/off switch for the amp tremolo at my feet, I retain the option of two different modulation effects available.

You should be getting the picture by now; there is no “best” pedal order. Placing a clean boost before an overdrive pedal will increase the drive without raising the volume much, whereas placing it after the drive will raise the volume without increasing the distortion. Feel free to start with the “standard” order, but don’t be afraid to ignore me and run that fuzz into an envelope filter and see what happens.

Electronic Guitar: Triggering Effects with Ableton Live Clips

Ableton Live’s unique position in the DAW world stems from the fact that it is as much performance as recording software. Forward-thinking guitarists like Eivind Aarset, Avi Bortnick, and Dan Phelps use a laptop loaded with Live as part of their effects arsenal. Part of Live’s appeal is its looping …

Ableton Live’s unique position in the DAW world stems from the fact that it is as much performance as recording software. Forward-thinking guitarists like Eivind Aarset, Avi Bortnick, and Dan Phelps use a laptop loaded with Live as part of their effects arsenal. Part of Live’s appeal is its looping capabilities, but it also functions well as a platform for a plethora of plugins that let guitarists create sounds unavailable through pedals. Live’s suite of included plugins offers a great fuzz (Saturator) that can go from mild to wild; Filter, which can operate in envelope or auto mode; and one of my favorite ambience generators, Reverb. And that’s only the beginning – include Max for Live, along with third-party plugins, and you have a suite of sonic modifiers that outdoes even the largest pedalboard. But it doesn’t stop there: Live lets sonic explorers achieve wondrous new sounds by modifying the parameters of those plugins with Clip Envelopes, while playing in real time.

Any DAW user should be familiar with using automation to make a reverb effect more prominent as the track goes on, or perhaps change the length of a delay from verse to chorus. Using Live’s Clip Envelopes, you can set up similar effects and crazier ones as you play in real time.

To work with clip envelopes, first record any length clip (with no sound) in the guitar channel. Set the channel to In, not Auto, so you will be able to hear your guitar as you play. Install the plugin effect you wish to modify. Click on the clip and then click on the E [now diagonal arrows in Live 10] in the lower left corner of the Clip View to reveal its Envelope box. This contains two dropdown menus. The top menu chooses the Device or plugin, while the bottom box lets you choose one of the parameters of that device. Now, you can draw automation for that parameter right in the clip.

Fig. 1

For example: You can automate the clip volume to create effects from tremolo to chop; send your guitar signal to an effects send only on beat four of a measure; or pan the signal in perfect time but random intervals — or all of the above. You are not restricted to one plugin or a single parameter. With one clip you can control as many plugins and parameters as you like. In Figure 1, I am controlling the Frequency (or rate) of Live’s Auto Pan Plugin, set for a tremolo type sound. At random intervals the speed of the trem jumps to a near ring modulator rate. In Figure 2, I am making use of the clip’s ability to control multiple parameters. The output of the delay is set to decrease over two bars because another clip envelope increases the feedback over those same two bars. As delay feedback approaches runaway levels, the volume can increase to ear- and speaker- destroying levels. This way the feedback effect stays at a constant volume. Keep in mind that this is all happening as I’m playing. You should experiment with multiple clips that modify the same effects in various ways.

Fig. 2

Native Instrument’s Guitar Rig offers LFO and envelope modifying modules that permit you to affect their amp and pedal emulation’s parameters in real time, but to my knowledge, there is nothing, short of creating your own effects in Max/MSP, that lets you control sound modifiers to the extent of Live’s clip envelopes.

Combining Pedals, Amps, Laptop and Apps

Like the majority of guitarists, I have spent many years improving the sound of my instrument through an amplifier. I eventually refined this knowledge of analog guitar tone to the point where I was writing books about it. Then, about a decade ago, I discovered the fantastic things one can do with …

How – and why – to combine traditional amps with modern DAWs

Like the majority of guitarists, I have spent many years improving the sound of my instrument through an amplifier. I eventually refined this knowledge of analog guitar tone to the point where I was writing books about it. Then, about a decade ago, I discovered the fantastic things one can do with a guitar through a laptop, and I began playing into an audio interface through amp sims and plugins, which I then piped directly to the PA. At the same time, I was living in a parallel universe of still playing gigs through my traditional pedals and amp. I yearned to somehow combine the two methodologies, and my desire only increased after I saw the brilliant, Norwegian guitarist, Eivind Aarset doing just that.

The issue I encountered was just enough latency to cause a comb-filtering effect between the signal going directly to the amp and the one going through the computer, messing up the tone I had been honing my whole life. How did Aarset sound so good using a laptop with his pedals and a Vox amp? In an interview he revealed that he ran the laptop signal to the PA rather than to his amplifier. Interviews with other guitarists combining laptops and amps showed they did the same thing.

Aarset and the others have the advantage of a dedicated sound person who can craft the perfect balance between amp and laptop in the house and monitors, whereas guitarist, Dan Phelps, uses a sophisticated configuration, akin to Aarset’s, but more self-contained. Phelps runs his guitar through his pedals into his Benson amp head. Between the head and the speaker he has a Fryette Power Station, splitting the signal. One path goes to the speaker and the other to his audio interface and into his laptop. From the interface outputs, he runs stereo into a pair of powered speakers.

The configuration used by Phelps, Aarset, and others, is essentially wet/dry/wet, with the wet sounds running through full-range speakers or the PA to maintain the full frequency spectrum that is added by digital effects, while the dry signal bypasses the laptop or iOS device to maintain pristine analog tone and presence.

The simplest way to create this kind of setup is with the guitar running (post whatever hardware effects you wish) into something like the Lehle P-Split II box to route one signal into an audio interface and the other path to the front end of your amp.

The audio interface can be anything from the pedal-sized Orange OMEC Teleport, which can send the signal to either a laptop or an iOS device, or the larger iConnectAUDIO2+, which can do both simultaneously.

If you are not splitting the signal post an amplifier, like Phelps, you might want to use an amp sim in your DAW or iOS device. With the right setup, there is no reason to sacrifice the analog tone you have spent countless hours crafting for the unlimited sonic potential of digital apps and effects.