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Gear

Nanoreviews of music gear, and what I use.

Last update: 2023-01-17

I often find myself getting into discussions about gear, so I thought it might be handy to compile my experiences with things of all sorts. I will keep adding to this list over time.

Guitar/Bass

Instruments

  • I’ve been playing Sandberg basses almost exclusively for a long time, and if you’ve seen any Garages live shows you’ve probably seen me playing a California or Classic Special. They are just incredible, some of the best instruments I’ve played. More recent models (I wanna say they switched somewhere around 2019?) have a new preamp that sounds a lot better than the previous one.

    Although my favorite models are the Classics and Customs, of note is their California SL (“super light”) line - my five string SL comes in at 2.6kg/5.7lbs!

  • I’ve been very impressed with Cort’s price/quality ratio. Even the cheapest, sub-$200 models are very fun to play and sound great.

  • I have a Yamaha RBX-270 I bought probably close to 20 years ago that’s been through Hell and back and still remains my favourite “beater” bass for practice and light low-stakes gigging. It doesn’t sound great, but plays far, far above its price point.

  • FGN Guitars are exceptional. There’s not a single bad thing I can say about them; the hardware is all highest quality, brand-name stuff, their neck/fretboard work is unparallled, they use great wood and look stunning and are just a dream to play.

  • I strongly dislike Ibanez instruments. They have reasonable pricing, use great hardware, and do a lot of funky and interesting designs, but I just can’t stand the feel of their “shreddy” necks and oversized frets.

Strings

I use DR Strings almost exclusively on both bass and guitar. D’Addario XLs are my “reference set”; they’re a very safe bet and have a great price/quality ratio. I consider anything that plays better than D’Addario XLs to be a great set of strings, and anything significantly worse to be bad. For that reason I’m not reviewing XLs here—but consider them a safe bet and a solid set of strings for both bass and guitar.

Important points about my approach to strings:

  • I play 9-42 or 9-46 sets on guitar and 40-100 sets on bass.
  • I replace strings regularly. I don’t like the sound of old or significantly broken-in strings, so I pretty much never keep the same set on for longer than like a month. I don’t like strings that die quicker than that.
  • I’ve found that I generally don’t like steel strings. I don’t really have any preconceptions about steel vs nickel (other than worrying about how my zero frets would handle a steel string), but the steel sets I’ve tried almost universally fell short of my expectations—with important exceptions noted further down.

Guitar

  • DR Strings:
    • Hi-Beams are extremely similar to D’Addario XLs, to the point where I probably wouldn’t be able to tell a difference between them. Solid. The set I tried took quite a long time to stabilize with regards to pitch, but I don’t think that’s a problem unless changing strings mid-gig.
    • Pure Blues are mellower and, for me, die too quickly. They play great, but get the “old string sound” within a couple of weeks.
    • Veritas are… aggressively okay. They’re really fun to play, but also die pretty quickly. The xenon strings sound a bit funky but I think I like them—unfortunately, they feel a bit tight and rust easily.
    • Hi-Voltage (the Dimebag set) are my current favorite electric guitar strings. They’re polymer-coated nickel-plated steel, and that’s exactly how they feel—like steels but without the annoying grippiness of most steels. There’s some fun funkiness going on with the tension on these—the G string is noticeably tighter than the rest (which is somewhat normal), but the plain strings feel extremely loose and bendy even by .009 standards while the bottom remains tight and solid. Incredibly fun to play, and they last a really long time.
  • Ernie Ball:
    • Slinkies are solid but die somewhat quickly in my experience. Great cheap general-purpose set. I particularly like the 9.5-44 Primo Slinkies.
    • Cobalt Slinkies feel miserable. The tension on them is weird, the texture is weird, they sound weird, I don’t like them.
    • Paradigms are fantastic, out-of-the-box perhaps the best-sounding set I’ve tried, and they last a really long time, but they’re not my favorite in feel, and are ridiculously expensive.

Bass

  • DR Strings:
    • Pure Blues are the best bass roundwound strings I’ve played. They’re as close to perfect as I’ve found.
    • Sunbeams are very fun to play, but feel like a slightly inferior version of the Pure Blues in every aspect. If I’m out of Pure Blues I’ll sometimes put on Sunbeams, but generally I stick with PBs. Sunbeams are still great strings—they’re just not as good as the Pure Blues.
    • Hi-Beams are miserable. I’ve tried them twice and both times have immediately taken them off, I dislike how they sound out-of-the-box and I hate how they feel.
    • Nickel Lo-Riders are very fun. They feel mellower and a bit more… friction-y than Pure Blues, but overall are pretty great. I might even prefer these to Sunbeams.
  • Ernie Ball:
    • Slinkies are mediocre at best. Not much to say other than they feel like an inferior version of D’Addario XLs.
    • Coated Slinkies are even less appealing than normal Slinkies since they feel and sound very similar, but cost more.
    • Cobalt Slinkies are even less appealing since they cost more but both sound and feel terrible.
  • Rotosound:
    • I hated the set of 66s I tried. It sounded okay but felt actively unpleasant to play, and I’m told they chew through frets at a frightening pace.
  • Warwick:
    • They’re cheap. That’s about the only positive thing I can say about them.
  • Sandberg:
    • I have never actually bought a Sandberg set, but the strings Sandberg basses come pre-strung with—which I’m told are rebranded GHS steels—sound and feel fantastic.

Pickups

  • I use Delano and Nordstrand pickups in my basses. Favorite models from each are the Nordstrand Blades - they just sound massive - and the Delano Xtenders, which are some of the clearest, most hi-fi sounding pickups I’ve ever tried.

  • I mount Fishman Fluence pickups in my guitars. Fishman is a mixed bag - the older models are trash. In particular I absolutely cannot stand their Modern humbuckers.

    On the other hand, they seem to improve dramatically with every new release. I have an Ibanez with their Modern set - one of the first sets of pickups in the Fluence line - and it’s dogshit; I have the Greg Koch set in my Tele and while it doesn’t sound quite perfect, it’s still fantastic; I have the newer Javier Reyes set in my Witchcaster and they’re pretty much the best humbuckers I’ve ever heard. Split coil tones are also delightful and remain virtually noiseless.

  • Of note are Seymour Duncan “vintage” models; I’ve previously had their “Vintage ’54” set in my Tele and they were some of the best-sounding Tele pickups I’ve tried, especially the neck. I ended up swapping not because there was any room for improvement with the tone, but in order to make it easier to record and play in high-gain and electrically noisy situations - the SDs are single coils, after all, so they’re not noise-free.

  • I’ve tried Dimarzio pickups a number of times and they’re a bit insane. In particular the DP122/DP123 bass set has absolutely absurd output and seems to be made just for fuzzy doom scenarios - and it’s not even their highest-output set, according to their website!

Accessories & Parts

  • I use Gotoh hardware for any upgrades and replacements. In particular, I replace my strap pins with Gotoh’s oversized pins, since I don’t like straplocks.
  • I use Minotaur 4“ wide straps on my basses. They’re absolutely massive and do a great job distributing the weight of even the heaviest instruments.
  • I like Fender’s Broken-In Leather Straps for guitars and lighter instruments.
  • I have Hipshot X-Tenders (detuners) on my two main gigging basses. They’re really expensive, but a lot of fun to play with and very handy in a live situation.
  • My favorite picks are D’addario Black Ice .55mm picks, but I like the small Dunlop Tortex Flex .73mm Jazz IIIs and the small Pitch Black Jazz IIIs in .60mm or .73mm.

Amplification

  • For guitar, I like Orange and Vox amps. I have an Orange Micro Dark which I greatly enjoy and have gigged with successfully. I’m hoping to find or build a Sunn Beta Lead at some point, since that amp holds the sickest sludge/doom tones I’ve ever heard.
  • For bass, I have a first-gen Darkglass Microtubes 500 and it’s aggressively okay. It’s a solid amp, but not my preferred kind of tone—I’d like to get a Markbass Little Mark Vintage or a Mesa Subway at some point. I like Gallien-Krueger heads a lot when other people play them; myself, I never seem to be able to dial in a tone that just works for me. I’ve also tried and been impressed with the Aguilar Tone Hammer. TC Electronic heads are not particularly exciting, but I don’t dislike them.
  • I use Gallien-Krueger and Trace Elliot cabs; my current rig is a Trace Elliot 2x8“ backed up by a GK 1x15“. For smaller gigs I will take just the 2x8“. I’ve also been very impressed with PJB cabs.
  • Back when I gigged on guitar, I used Orange cabs.

Pedals

I have two pedals that I can’t live without:

  • The TC Electronic Spark is my “magic” pedal. It’s a dirty booster; kinda like what the Tube Screamer wishes it was. It works wonders on bass, basically works as a “add warmth and growl” button. Makes guitar sound tube-y and warm too. It’s wonderful, and pretty cheap. I have not tried, but wouldn’t trust the Spark Mini - the level of control you get with the full-sized Spark is great.

  • The Markbass Compressore is my favorite compressor in existence. Much like the TC Spark, it adds a wonderful tube-y (in this case, coming from a real tube) warmth, has very in-depth controls that sound musical in all positions, and makes any amount of compression sound great. It’s wonderful and I cannot recommend it enough.

    They also make a white version of the Compressore through their guitar-focused DV Mark brand, called the DV Mark DVM Compressore - it’s the exact same circuit as the Markbass Compressore.

Other stuff:

  • The EHX Bass Big Muff Pi is terrible. Almost every other bass fuzz sounds better and more usable to my ear. It’s so bad that some of the imperfect digital models of it I’ve heard in cheap multi-fx units (like the Zoom B3) actually sound better than the real thing.
  • The DOD Boneshaker might be my favorite general-purpose heavy distortion pedal, it has a ton of controls and almost every setting sounds great. Even Alice In Chains style fully voiced chords sound incredibly clear through a Boneshaker, even with loads of distortion. Sounds great on bass, too.
  • TC Electronic and DOD/Digitech are my go-to pedal brands. I don’t like how most of the the analog Boss pedals sound and I dislike their switches (and have had them break in the past). I want to like EHX but generally find most of their pedals lacking.
  • The TC Electronic Sentry is the best noise gate pedal on the market, as far as I’m concerned. The PolyTune is a fantastic tuner.

Drums

  • I play Vater Manhattan 7A sticks.

Studio

Interfaces

  • In perhaps the most predictable choice of this entire list, I use Focusrite Scarlett interfaces. They work pretty reliably under Linux. In the past I’ve also worked with:
    • An M-Audio M-Track Eight, which I was impressed by, particularly it working out-of-the-box without the need to install any bloatware (like with current-gen Focusrite gear) and its handy physical switches, including a direct monitoring and a mono switch.
    • A Presonus Studio 1824C which, while very nicely made, refused to work reliably under Linux and so I quickly sold it.
    • A Universal Audio Apollo Twin, which was absolutely fantastic.

Mics

  • My favorite mic in the world is the EV/Blue Cardinal and I use it for everything, from vocals to snare drums. It’s extremely characterful, though and if you need a transparent sound you might prefer the next one:
  • The AKG C414 is the best overall “anything mic” I’ve used. Sounds wonderful and extremely detailed and accurate in any role, from vocals to drum overheads. Very pricy, though.
  • Dynamic mics: I like the EV RE-20 a lot, but currently use a Rode Podmic. The Shure SM57 is a very safe bet, but I strongly dislike their SM7B—it sounds nice, but takes an unreasonable amount of gain to get it to a usable output level.
  • I like the AKG D12 and the Shure Beta 52A a lot for kick drums; I didn’t like the AKG D112 and ended up selling it.

Audio

  • I have a pair of Yamaha HS7 studio monitors backed up by a HS8S subwoofer. They have a relatively high noise floor that tends to get worse with age, but I find that I get much better mixes with them than with something like KRK Rokits.
  • I use an old pair of AKG K712 headphones day-to-day and for preliminary mixes. They’re extremely comfortable and have a very nice, wide and open sound. I also have a pair of Sennheiser HD599 and I hate them, they sound overly warm and narrow. I keep a box of cheap Superlux HD681s in reserve in case anything breaks, and I much prefer them to the significantly more expensive Sennheisers.

Software

  • I use Ableton Live Suite as my DAW because I’m already locked into its ecosystem. If I was buying a new DAW today, I’d go with Bitwig Studio–it’s incredibly good and has some of the best sound design tools of any DAW.
  • I use MuseScore for composing and transcription. It sucks ever since it got taken over by UG, but I’m not willing to pay for Sibelius. My recommendation would be to get MuseScore 3 (the last version that predates their initiative to destroy the software for users who are not willing to pay or install spyware) and never update.

Plugins, IRs

General

  • The Molot compressor is by far my most used plugin.
  • I love all of the Baby Audio plugins.
  • Waves have a lot of really great plugins, but need a bloatware installer. In particular, the Reel ADT double tracker is one of the best plugins I’ve used; I also quite like the One Knob line.

Instruments

  • I use EZDrummer for my drums, although I’m not entirely happy with how it sounds.

Guitar/Bass Tones

General:

  • I use Dr Bonkers Impulse Responses for cab sims.
  • I use Kuassa for most effects and basic amps.

Guitar:

  • I use Neural DSP amp sims for my guitar tones.
  • I have Line 6 Helix Native and strongly dislike it. I cannot seem to get good tones out of it, the cab models are weak, and I dislike the UI—but I have friends who use it and get amazing guitar tones.
  • I like Amplitube a lot for both bass and guitar. It sounds extremely nice and has a very good selection of gear (although not quite as good as the Helix’s). Its room and speaker simulation is fantastic.
  • BIAS Amp/FX/Pedal require email login within the plugin, which is extremely annoying, and don’t actually sound that great. Bias FX is notable only because it has a POG model.

Bass:

  • The Nembrini Audio Blackice Beta Gamma bass amp is wonderful, and my go-to bass amp sim.
  • I like the Ampeg SVT-VR a lot, significantly more than the Ampeg SVT Suite.
  • GK Amplification 3 is solid.
  • Overloud Mark Studio 2 is aggressively okay.
  • Kuassa’s Cerberus bass amp is wonderful and another one of my go-tos.

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