Sunday, July 27, 2008

Epiphone Valve Junior and the BitMo Trio Mod

My first Epiphone Valve Junior was one of the combos. Sounded OK but a little sloppy and very noisy. Sold it and never looked back. Since then, however, they've made a ton of improvements and now they are great little amps at any price.

Here's mine in original stock condition:

I got mine in like new condition for about a hundred dollars shipped from an online auction site. They go for that much give or take ten bucks all the time. It's a good deal. Buy one if you're considering it. Totally worth it. The sound to me is sort of Marshall-esque-good midrange bite and that crunchy AC/DC type of distortion. Doesn't get too terribly loud when you crank it either, which is a good thing. I can comfortably play it dimed for a while in the afternoon or evenings but not at night. It's a few degrees louder than a stereo at what I think of as normal listening volume if that helps you put it in perspective.

As I said, I like it a lot but I'm not one to leave well enough alone. It's a little dark sounding for my tastes sometimes (my cabs have kind of a dark sound to them, if you have some brighter Celestions or something this'd probably be great) and could deal w/ a little more names. After looking into mods for some time, I decided on the BitMo Trio mod, which you can get on the internets for about fifty bucks. It adds a tone knob, gain boost and three different gain voicings.

All of this looks like a few parts in a bag once you get it in the mail:

Now to install these mods, first thing you have to do is get in the amp. Valve Juniors have self-discharging power supply capacitors so they are relatively safe to work on. Don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get to work on this as a first amp project. The voltages that can build up in tube amps and knock you on your ugly ass should be rendered harmless. However, you can never be to sure so the standard advice still stands: don't be a retard.

To open it up, first you have to take off the back:

It's held on by screws. Turn them counter-clockwise to remove them. There are then some larger screws on top you need to remove. They're hidden under little plastic things, which I always thought were a bit tacky but, you know, if don't want little cost cutting measures like this, buy a more expensive amp:

The cab is designed such that the amp-part doesn't just fall down when you remove these screws. You have to slide it out. And it looks like this:

Note: I am not drinking whiskey but I do keep it on my workbench/kitchen table for emergency purposes. You never know when things are going to get too complicated to handle properly sober.

Next step is to drill the holes for the new controls. Don't rush this and wear safety glasses. The BitMo kit comes w/ a template to place the hole:

I just poked a hole and made a little mark w/ a sharpie. That one's for the tone knob/gain boost. The one for the three-way switch you just gotta guess on.

To drill these suckers, you need to be patient. Buy some good quality drill bits for drilling metal. You probably won't be able to get away w/ just buying a quarter inch and three-eighth inch bits. They're too big for one pass. You need to start w/ a smaller bit and work your way up. Go in about eighth inch increments maximum. Be careful and let the drill do the work. Don't try to push it though any faster than it wants to go. I put some tape over the marks to keep the drill from scratching up the faceplate if it slipped (and it did).

Here's the finished holes:

Now, from here, you have to actually install the mod. This is the frustrating part so I didn't end up getting all too many pictures. You're in luck though since GearScore has an excellent page on it. Between this and the very good instructions that BitMo sent w/ the mod, it was fairly simple to get it all up and running. I soldered everything to the pot and too the switch, installed them and then soldered them to the top of the circuit board. Easy.

The one trick, which I stole from that GearScore page I linked to, is to use a pair of vice grips to hold things while soldering them:

Holy crap! That makes life so much easier I'm embarrassed I didn't do it until now. Anyway, that up there is the gain voicing switch w/ all parts attached. The tone knob/gain boost looks about the same but I forgot to get a photo.

Here it is all installed:

I had a bit of trouble on the three-way gain voicing switch but other than that it was easy. It's easy to get turned around by the schematics BitMo includes so be careful. It's not necessarily the best way to do things but I just soldered the leads to the top of the board. Works but it is a little sloppy.

Here she is all put back together:

I didn't do the water slide decals because I screwed up all the practiced ones I tried. I guess it would look a little cooler w/ them.

As far as how it sounds, it's a big improvement over an already good tone. The gain voicing switch just gives you three levels of gain, really. The higher gain settings seem to get a bit more oomph in the high midrange as well. The tone knob is nice too. It's not the most versatile thing in the world and seems to work something like a high end filter though it does add a bunch more high end than is available stock just by being there. The gain boost, adds some lows back in and is what can really take you over the top when you got the thing cranked.

Overall, not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I used to use an OD pedal to really crank the Valve Junior into rocking distortion territory but now it's totally unnecessary and sounds better besides. I'd recommend this to anyone as an easy first mod or a way to get a killer small tube amp for the price of a decent distortion pedal.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Making Neck Pockets, Screwing Up, Making new Plans

I took advantage of the nice weather a couple weekends ago and had a crack at routing out the neck pocket on the cheapo guitar. Rather than use normaly router bits and a template following kit, I decided to use a template following bit. It has a little bearing on it that rests against the edge of the template which you can see here:

Here is how it follows along the template. You can see that the bearing keeps the router bit from cutting into the template:

After my first crack at, I found that for some reason it didn't cut it completely and there was a little bit of wood still sticking up on the side:

I solved this problem by moving the template over a bit and routing it off. Bad idea. It turns out that it wasn't that the pocket on my template was wrong but that the little stem for the neck was a little too wide. Now my neck pocket is a little too wide for the neck. I am getting kind of ticked about not having my baritone neck, which was what was destined for this neck pocket on anything and this is yet another guitar that won't turn out to be up to snuff so I think I'm just gonna buy a decent Squier Tele and put the baritone neck on that and use the Squier neck for this guy. It kinda sucks that on my second try, I can't make a guitar better than a Squier but there it is. Squier has CNC machines and millions of dollars. If I had that, I'm sure I could make a damned fine guitar.

Anyway, w/ that done w/, I used a template and the same bit to carve a little recess for the control cavity cover. Ended up having to free-hand it a bit and it's not perfect but pretty good. You can see it's a little rough around the edges:

The wood on this guy is a little thicker than a standard tele body so I wanted to make a little recess for the neck plate too. Note to self: make sure that router bit is deep enough that it doesn't destroy your template:

Lots of work down the tubes there. At least it doesn't look so bad I won't be able to fix it up a bit w/ a sander:

After these two mistakes, I decided to call it a day. Sometimes you just gotta leave well enough along. On the brightside, at least I'm not this dumbass fly who got stuck in the carpet tape I use to hold my templates in place. He's dead dow:

Fly: 0
Frank: 1
Luthiery: 2

Second place isn't bad, I guess.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Linux/Ardour Recording Rig

So about a half year ago, I got a wild hair and decided to build myself a computer recording rig for the purposes of creating demos for my band Sun Splitter and for whatever else I so chose. Given that it's one of my projects, I put it in it's natural place: the back burner. That is, I did until a certain North American government decided to give me six hundred dollars to save me from the terrorists. Not only do I appreciate the sentiment, I also appreciate having enough cash to spend on yet more musical equipment that I don't really need.

I bought myself a decent (or so I thought) motherboard case combo from an online retailer and four gigs of ram to which I added four two gigs I had sitting around. (This is absolutely ridiculous and unnecessary, I only bought this much ram to be a jackass. Also, I have six gigs of ram. Up yours!) I got a decent but lower-end AMD dual-core microprocessor, a used and slightly damaged flat screen monitor of eBay for fifty bucks and w/ an old mouse and keyboard I had laying around, I was in business.

The recording software I chose is called Ardour. I love it. It's open source and finicky and pisses off my whole band every time I record on it so it's just about perfect for me. I use it and subscribe to it monthly w/ a small donation. You should too. The thing about Ardour though is it's only for Linux and MacOSX. Having enough self-respect to avoid OSX, I opted for Linux. You should too.

I've tried a few Linux distros in my day and ultimately my favorite proved to be Ubuntu. Some nerds will bag on it for not being 1337 enough but, honestly, if they care so much about their Linux distro being hard to install, they are probably pretty boring to talk to anyway. Ubuntu is easy to install on most systems and they have a great forum if you get stuck. There's enough people on there that there's someone bored enough to help you w/ the dumbest n00b question. Don't be shy. The other nice thing about Ubuntu is there's a package called Ubuntu Studio that includes everything you need to get your audio workstation up and running. It's a bit bloated though as it contains all kinds of vidoe and picture editing. The best way, I decided, was simply to install vanilla Ubuntu and then install only the audio package of Ubuntu studio from there.

W/ that taken care of, I needed two more things, the most important being an audio interface for my computer. Normal computer soundcards simply don't cut it for serious recording. Thankfully, the other guitarist in Sun Splitter happened to have a Lexicon Omega USB interface laying around so that got us started. USB interfaces really aren't the best, better to have firewire or PCI (even though PCI is old there is good support in Linux), but we get by OK w/ this. The Sun Splitter tracks we have on the current page as of now were recorded using the Lexicon and a Windows laptop. He also provided the other thing we needed, "studio monitors." I put that in scare quotes because we're actually monitoring w/ an old stereo reciever and some nice stereo speakers he just had laying around.

Here it is:

You can't see the computer because it's under the desk and I'm not getting down on that floor for any reason. It's filthy.