The Kowloon Walled Bunny

Well over ten years ago, my band played a show with Pound, WI. Russell Hall, the guitarist (who now plays in the spectacular United Sons of Toil), was using a Ross Distortion. I thought it sounded great. Sometime around 2001 or 2002 I picked one up at a secondhand guitar shop. I really loved it. I still own it and I still love it.

Sometime soon thereafter, when I began to research pedals for fun, I discovered that the MXR Distortion +, the Ross Distortion, and the DOD Overdrive 250 were all essentially the same circuit with only slight differences. After looking at the schematic, I had a lot of ideas for possible mods, but I never got around to trying them.

Let’s jump to 2007. My friend Scott Evans of Kowloon Walled City had a number MXR distortions. He had one that he really liked, and sounded different than all the rest. We had a little shootout.
Scott's Pedals

What we discovered is that the one that Scott really liked had a broken clipping diode. Essentially, it was as if a diode was removed. It sounded great, just rough edged, loud, and rude. I kind of wanted to do this to my Ross, but it was a nice old pedal, so I refrained.

This year Kowloon Walled City released their second album, which is astoundingly good and can be downloaded for free! I figured I would force them into an endorsement deal while simultaneously doing something I’d wanted to do for a long time; make my ultimate version of the Distortion + circuit. I pretty much just declared that I was making this pedal, and Scott and the other guys in the band were very excited.

So, what did I do? Not much, actually. I guess that’s a bad thing to say given that I want to sell these. I started building pedal with the belief that I wanted to be open and share information, so here goes.

Op amp:741. This is the classic MXR op amp. The Ross uses a 4558, but yeah, the 741 does sound better. People say it’s because it has a shitty slew rate and is just kind of crappy by technical standards. I’ve never measured, I just know I like the sound.

Resistors: I pretty much use the stock value from the Ross.

Caps: I almost use the stock values from the MXR. There is no 10pf in the negative feedback loop of the op amp, since it’s the 741. the one big Change is that I have raised the value of the input coupling cap from .01uf to .1uf. Since Kowloon Walled City tunes down to stupid, this will allow a bit more of fundamental to get through. The risk is that the distortion can get farty with too much low frequency input. I don’t care; I’m not looking for a tight metal distortion.

Clipping Diodes: I put in sockets so that the user can choose and change diodes whenever and customize their sound. The version I built for Scott has two Germanium 1N34s, which can be kind of quiet. However, I added a knob to the pedal called the GSE knob. That knob adds resistance between ground and one clipping diode, simulating Scotts broken pedal. Personally, I prefer one Ge diode and one LED. The pedal ships with a variety of diodes for user tweakability. It can also be run with no diodes and will act as a boost pedal.

So, here is the first production model.
KWB

Thanks for reading!

The First-World Suffering of Infinite Possibilities

I’m lucky. I could list a massive number of ways in which I’m lucky, but this is a journal of my gear and audio projects, so I’m going to wade into the shallow end and apply this only to the pre-defined subject.

So, to start again. I’m lucky. I have a large amount of nice gear. Over the course of 20 years of playing guitar and 10 years of fiddling with amps, I’ve gathered a nice collection of stuff I’ve always wanted. I have the original Blackface Fender, restored on my own. I have numerous guitars that make my friends drool. I have plenty of effects. I have a couple extra, useful, awesome tiny amps. I have a solid bass, a rad bass preamp I built myself, and two amazing bass cabs. I have a sparkle-covered drum kit. I can get amazing sounds and ugly sounds, and cover most all of the bases.

So why can’t I just make music for a while? Why do I always go back to wanting to build something different, or re-defining my guitar setup, or trying out some new device? For instance, yesterday I went for about a two mile walk, and for most of the time I was thinking about my Cartographer amp. I realized that I was pushing towards the aesthetic and sound of Shellac’s amps. I thought I was being silly. I kept telling myself (as if I was a separate person), “You have the skill to make anything you want, to create something for yourself that works elegantly and awesomely for its purpose. What do you do? What do you make?”

I waffled between the amp I was planning in the last post, or re-working my existing gear to work for me, and then just making music. I wondered, “Do I need more stuff? Do I have a compulsion?” Like I’ve said, I admire bands who pick their palette and then stick to it. I really don’t want to acquire stuff for the sake of having stuff. In fact, I often have the urge to purge my gear.

Well, if I have to answer myself, I give the answer “Gear is Fun.” For instance, I don’t actually use one of my Fuzzy Bunny pedals in any of my bands, but I think it’s a neat pedal, and I enjoy building them and selling them to my friends. Just like when some bands form and dream about their costumes or playing the big hall in town, I dream about what gear I’ll be using, and what sounds I can make with my pre-defined gear. The problem though is that I usually have the means to make it happen, so I start the project and my time and resources get stretched more and more thin. I’ve not played guitar with another person since the last Cartographer show, and the next GvsG practice is not ’til mid December, yet I’ve spent a large amount of time contemplating my guitar gear.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I just feel silly. I feel silly for being confused by what I want to use, and I feel silly for caring so much, and I feel silly for not being as grateful as I am for what I do own. A big part of making the pedals is knowing that people think it’s cool to own something that I built. There is an element of ego to it, as well as an element of wanting to be the guy who helps his friends get what they want. I just have this picture of my head of being on stage with my weirdo amp which I conceived and built, playing insane music, and generally seeming awesome or confusing.

So how do I get there? What is the first step? What really matters, and what is just bullshit?

Stephen, Hansi, and Kowloon Walled Bunny

Sold a guitar, modded a guitar, and did some spraying. Delicious fumes, both solder and clear-coat.

First up was Hansi. I play with Hansi in Truxton. Here he is with a fake moustache holding our band-mate Jeremy’s brand new daughter (2009 model). He’s a red-haired, fair-skinned Swedish guy. If anyone should have bought my Hagstom Natural Viking, it would be him… and it was him. He loves it. Today, I did the generic setup; I put on new strings, adjusted the action, and tried to tweak the intonation.

After that, it was Stephen time. Stephen has been moving away from his Strat and more and more toward his Tele. His tele has the very popular mod of having a humbucker in the neck position. However, it’s been just a touch too murky for his tastes. He decided to get a Duncan Mini Humbucker as a replacement. However, the guy at the guitar shop suggested moving up to 500k post from the stock 250k. Why didn’t I think of that? Am I slipping?

So the first thing we did was replace the 250K pots with 500K pots. This began to help. Stephen actually really liked the middle position sound now. We knew we had at least one option that would work. However, the mini-hum was already in the new, pre-cut pickguard. We just had to try.

Three solder joints and ten screws later, and the pickup was in.
Stephen's Tele with Mini-Humbucker.

I plugged it in first because I’m a selfish bastard. I hit a couple notes and it just sounded correct. By itself it had a nice low content without too much woofiness. There was a good treble articulation but without a lot of the 5kHz that makes a Tele bridge pickup jump out. It was soft on the 300Hz to 600Hz, providing a slight, but not overwhelming, mid cut.

We did do one tricky thing that we always do. Stephen likes to coil-tap his humbuckers in the middle position. It’s pretty easy to do. The tone of the middle position of the tele, with the stock bridge and half of the neck pickup, was really, really awesome. It kicks the treble up a bit as one would expect, but it also did a bit more of a mid cut in the 800Hz to maybe 1.2kHz range. To me it sounded like the best element of the in between Strat positions, plus a bit more fullness in the low, and without the filthy stigma of being a Strat player.

This was a very successful day of tweaking. Stephen looks happy, right?
Stephen in our lair of repair and noise.

Right before I started writing this entry, I put the clear-coat on the upcoming Kowloon Walled Bunny (KWB) pedals. My friend Scott is in a band called Kowloon Walled City, who have been doing very well recently. He and I both love love the Ross/MXR distortion circuit. Scott had this one Distortion + pedal that sounded better than all else. We had a little shootout one
day to figure out why.
Dist+++

It turns out a clipping diode broke and went open in his favorite pedal. The result is a rougher-edged distortion and a LOT more level. For the KWB, I added a knob (the GSE knob) which removes a clipping diode. Essentially, it can be pleasantly broken to Scott’s preference in adjustable amounts. In addition, I took some component values from the Distortion +, some from the Ross Distortion, and adjusted others on my own to my personal taste. The result is more low end and more touch-sensitivity than the standard circuits off which this was based. In addition, the GSE knob plays both the roll of a tone knob, and a “rudeness” knob, if such a thing can exist.

Today I applied the graphics and a clear-coat for the first five units. Mmmmm, fumes.
KWB!!!

Thanks for reading!

The Cartographer – Proof of concept.

A short bit ago I cobbled together a guitar amp setup for Cartographer which resembled the ideas I had in my head.
Cartographer Test Amp

The 1-15 and rack gear is the same setup I used for bass in Replicator, but I’m only using one cabinet instead of two, and I’m only using one channel of the power amp instead of both in bridged mono. The blue bass preamp is a circuit I built based on a Fender Blackface guitar channel.

The top amp is a 6 watt kit called the Hi-Octane from AX84. It’s based on the JCM 800 preamp, but has a 6 watt, single EL84 power section. I got the kit, poorly assembled into this crappy practice amp case, oscillating and broke, for dirt cheap. I re-did it from the ground up, and it’s a little shred machine. Not that I NEED a shred machine, but it did get a surprising amount of use on the new GvsG record.

So I’m running into the Hi-Octane and the running the speaker out into a dummy load/speaker soak that I built a while back for my Champ. Out of the speaker soak I’m running into the other channel of the solid state power amp, and then into the 2-12 w/ tweeter bass cab I borrowed.

As an aside, I have no problem with solid state. Yes, I’m mainly a tube guy, and yes, I think for more subtle and complex music, tube amps generally sound better on guitar. However for non-subtle, assaulting, harsh, annoying weirdo music, which is what Cartographer plays, I think solid state can work just fine.

So in short, the results of the test were a big, “Hell Yes!” I’m 90% there. I did have a couple big issues.

1. I wanted a little more gain out of the bass side. Sure, I could put a gain/level boost pedal in front of just that side, but if I’m building a rig from the ground up, I may as well just give myself the option of more gain.

2. The distortion/guitar side just didn’t have the same kind of attack that my Bunnydrive into my Fender Pro Reverb has. I might be able to attain more dynamics by hitting the power amp less hard. I gave up because the borrowed 2-12 cab sounded weird. The internal crossover rolled off the highs for the 2-12 speakers. I liked having the tweeter on just a touch, but then I could still tell the speakers were too muddy.

So this was enough to keep going, and to encourage me to try the solid state simulacrum preamp of my potential full tube amp which I spoke about in the previous entry.

Tonight’s Thoughts – The Cartographer

I love using multiple amp guitar setups. However, taking a bunch of amps to shows sucks. However, my band Cartographer is a duo, so I’ve caved in and I take my old bass amp and my current guitar amp.

I got to daydreaming about what the ultimate amp would be for this band. All my friends know I’m a massive fan of Shellac. I love the simplicity of their gear (at least on the outside), but cooler than that, I like the fact that they’ve been a band for 17 years or so and have never changed their gear. I respect the concept of saying “here is my palette,” and then sticking to it for the life of the creative work.

So after a bit of thinking I came up with the following idea: a channel switching amp with separate line outs for each pre-amp channel, and the ability to run both channels simultaneously. So each preamp channel could be routed to the power amp separately or blended, and while all of this is going on the individual preamp line outs will have isolated outputs on the back.

So the concept is that I have a clean bass channel based on my bass preamp, and a distortion channel based roughly on a JCM800 topology. I run the bass channel to my big solid state power amp and a 1-15, and I run the distortion channel to the internal tube power amp to a guitar cabinet. If I ever wanted to use the head for anything else, I could just run it as a normal channel switching head, or blended in mono.

Building an amp is a big project. While I’m sure it will sound good, I don’t really need it if it doesn’t work for my band. Then I remembered the runofgroove site. It’s a site with a collection of schematics where they mimic tube amp with solid state components; specifically J201 JFETs.

So the rack I got from Scott of Kowloon Walled City will become my low rent, solid state preamp clone of my theoretical Cartographer amp. If it rules, I can continue. If it doesn’t, I can repurpose the circuits into little preamp pedals like the Rusty Box.