Rather than do a ‘best of’ style post, every year I’m doing a rundown of what gear we started with and what gear we ended up with – along with a discussion of why.
2022 has been a third year lost to the pandemic and its mis-management by a government driven by ideology over science.
With this part of our lives firmly on pause, I’ve continued to tweak my gigging setup, in the hope of being a bit more prepared for when we get to do this again. And by tweak, I mean I’ve thrown part of it away and started again.
Gigging Feels So Far Away
The pandemic isn’t over. I’ve had friends fall unpleasantly ill with COVID this year, and one of them end up unable to work thanks to developing Long COVID (to go with the friends from previous years who continue to suffer with Long COVID).
Vaccines help a lot: things would be far worse without them. They don’t guarantee 100% safety, alas, and so we took the decision that, this year, we’d focus on trying to record our music instead.
Will we be gigging in 2023? As I write this, I doubt it. I’ll be delighted to be proven wrong. I miss it terribly.
Rehearsals Came To A Crashing Halt Too
Our rehearsals morphed into recording time. We sat down with Reaper, and started figuring out how to work together to faithfully capture the cover songs that we perform live. Reaper’s changed a lot since we last used it regularly, gaining a badly-thought-out UI that has me seriously thinking about switching DAWs for 2023. The features that made Reaper so attractive 7-8 years ago? They’ve been copied by modern DAWs like Presonus Studio One. Watch this space.
We were fine rehearsing and recording while we all worked from home. Unfortunately, that came to an end for both of us, and we just weren’t comfortable with the risks to continue rehearsing.
A Change Of Strings Changes The Auden
My main gigging / rehearsal guitar is still the Auden 45 Bowman. The longer I spend with it, the more it suits our little duo. I don’t feel any need at all to even consider replacing it with something else.
What I did do, though, was experiment with different strings on the Auden.
- My go-to strings are Optima Bronze 11’s. They bring out the guitar’s powerful mid-range, and help make the guitar stand out when played around other guitars (for example, at an open-mic night). I’ve been using them for years, now.
- This year, I tried a set of Martin Retros on the Auden. They’re a nickel/copper mixture, and on the Auden, they have the effect of adding a beguiling fragility and balance to the tone. Unfortunately, they’ve been pretty hard to get here in the UK; at one point, I’d bought the last set to be had anywhere in the country. I hope that situation has improved (or improves next year), because these strings are something special.
The Backup Guitar Slot Still Isn’t Settled
Last year, I bought a B&G Little Sister P90 Crossroads to be my main writing guitar for the band, with a view to it hopefully doubling as my backup guitar too.
As a writing guitar, it’s working out just fine. Not that we’ve done much writing this year, alas. Definitely not a fan of the V-neck shape though. At some point, I’ll work up the courage to sand that down into a softer curve.
As a backup guitar … the jury is still out. That’s partly because …
Going Fractal For My Gigging Board
Seeing as I was ordering an Axe-FX 3, I threw in a Fractal Audio FM-3 and the FC-12 foot controller too while I was at it. (I’m glad I did. Subsequent price rises mean that I wouldn’t be able to afford this setup now.)
I went with the FM-3 for the same reason I went with the Axe-FX: digital convenience for effects. There’s a song or two in our set list where big, ambient effects are important to the emotion that we’re trying to convey. We experimented with traditional pedals, but the FM-3 just makes that totally effortless.
Let’s be honest: the FM-3 (and, indeed, the entire Fractal Audio line) has sod all specialist support for acoustic guitars. That’s because (to a large extent) it’s not needed. All of their effects seem to be full-bandwidth, which means that they work just as well with acoustic guitar as they do with the narrow tones of electric guitar.
The FM-3 Removes An Important Constraint
Going with the FM-3 opens an interesting possibility. I’m no longer constrained by gigging with guitars that sound good going straight into the PA or into my acoustic amp. If we start doing larger gigs again, the FM-3 will allow me to switch guitar tones mid-set if we want to.
That means that the Little Sister may still work out as the backup guitar. It all depends on whether or not I can dial up a clean patch for it that works for what we do. Something to explore in 2023 if we start rehearsals again.
(For larger gigs, a backup guitar isn’t just the responsible thing to bring. A couple of our songs are in different tunings, and it’s far faster to switch guitars on stage than it is to change tunings. Less risk of breaking a string while you’re changing too …)
When we supported Adriana Spina in Malvern, we watched her switch between acoustic and electric guitar several times during her set. To make that possible, she had to cart around a hefty Fender electric guitar amp. With the FM-3, it’s all in the one package. We just need to figure out how we want to make that work for what we do.
I Probably Wouldn’t Choose The FM-3 Again
The one issue with the FM-3 is that it isn’t just a lower-power, floor-based Axe-FX 3.
When I bought it, I knew that it’s not powerful enough to support all the sounds and effects of the big rack unit. I thought that meant I’d just be able to run less effects at once. I didn’t realise that some things had been left out completely. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue, but I won’t know for sure until I’m using the FM-3 regularly with my acoustic guitar.
(At home, I’m making full use of the Axe-FX 3 instead of the FM-3 …)
At the time, there was no other choice if I wanted to go with Fractal. The FM-9 (which has all the features of the Axe-FX 3) wasn’t available to buy. If I was buying now, I would definitely go with the FM-9. Yes, it’s more expensive, but once you factor in the cost of an external foot controller to use with the FM-3, the difference isn’t so bad.
Goodbye To Specialist Pedals For Acoustic Guitar
I didn’t just go with the FM-3 for convenience. It’s also because we both decided that we didn’t like the specialist pedals that I’d picked up last year.
- The Fender Smoulder Acoustic Drive … that was an easy one. We both love hard-rock electric guitar, and an overdriven acoustic guitar just didn’t sound right to either of us. It’s not a pedal for hard rock tones.
- The LR Baggs Align Reverb was also a very clear decision. We wanted big, ambient, percussive reverb for one of our songs. That’s not what the Align Reverb does.
I’ve kept the LR Baggs Align Session, as it does a nice job of sweetening up the tone. In time, I’m pretty sure I’ll dial in a patch in the FM-3 that does the same thing. If I do, then I’ll be waving goodbye to the Align Session too.
Impossible To Plan For 2023
I want to be out gigging. I miss our weekly rehearsals. But I don’t know whether either can safely happen at all. Somehow, I doubt it.