LMT Gear Overview: Mike’s Guitar & Keys Rig

mike-live-01Hey. Mike here. Gear, eh? Alright. Let’s see what we’ve got.

I’m not one to need the latest, or greatest. And I wouldn’t say I’m a serious gear head. But I do tend to accumulate a bunch of stuff. In the past, it wasn’t unheard of for me to show up at a gig with four or five guitars, a mess of effects pedals, guitar amp, one or two keyboards, sound modules, a computer, keyboard amp, home-made sample and MIDI trigger pedals, along with an 8-channel mixer just to combine all my sound sources. Lately, I’ve been trying to simplify. Less stuff, ya know? Have I been successful? Well …

Ya see, the thing for me is to fill in sounds here and there in order to expand the sonic landscape. And I like to play what I hear, so if there’s a particular guitar sound, I’ll try for it. If there’s a keyboard pad, or a synth solo, I’ll see what I can do. Even if it’s subtle I figure it brings just that little bit extra to the LMT sound and listener experience. Having said that, I’m also quite happy rockin’ out on guitar, as that is my primary instrument. So let’s start there, the guitar stuff.

mike-gear-01Guitar-wise, I don’t have a high-end, classic guitar. I’ve had a Stratocaster and I got rid of it. Just didn’t do it for me. Not that the strat isn’t a great guitar. Certainly is. And has been used by many an artist to make some awesome music (Stevie Ray anyone?). But it just wasn’t for me. As it is, my main guitar for years was a Japanese-made Vantage Explorer that I bought in the early 80’s. Red, with a bolt-on maple neck. It has the classic dual humbucker configuration with volume and tone controls for each pickup and a three-position pickup selector, making it similar to the Les Paul or SG configuration. But is had the added feature of single-coil taps for that single-coil sound. I just love the maple neck on this guitar. And because I’ve had it so long, it just feels natural when I pick it up. That guitar is the first new electric guitar I ever purchased (I bought one second hand off a friend’s father way back in my early high school days but it was some custom, 4-pickup, six-button, frankenstein thing. Freaky.) I still have the Vantage and I still love it.

A few years later, in ’86 or ’87, I bought a cheap knock-off of the Jackson “Randy Rhoads” Flying V model, the black version. Mine was manufactured by Hondo in Japan. I had it retrofitted with a Kahler locking tremolo bridge the same year I bought it. And that was guitar #2 for years. The Kahler wore out and so I replaced it with a Floyd Rose a few years ago, doing the retrofit myself. I keep it tuned down a full step and use it for a few songs here and there. My current #1 guitar is an Ibanez RG350 with locking tremolo, black on black. Love this guitar. Super-fast neck. Rarely if ever goes out of tune. Has that Ibanez metal-ish sound. It simply rocks. And I use it on most songs. The only drawback is that with the locking tremolo, it’s set to standard tuning with no option for any quick alternate tunings. And so, my current #2 guitar is an Epiphone Les Paul Studio in a red wine finish. I’ll use this guitar primarily for songs in non-standard tuning, and also occasionally just because I like its feel or sound. So, if you’ve been keeping scrore at home, the current guitar line-up is: #1 = Ibanez RG, #2 = Epiphone LP Studio, #3 = Vantage Explorer, #4 = Hondo Rhoads V.

But that ain’t all. What about acoustic tunes? What then? Well, for just such an emergency, I have a Yamaha acoustic with active electronics and piezo bridge pickup. The body is thinner than your average acoustic guitar so it’s easy to hold, and the single cutaway in the body makes the neck easily accessible to above the 15th fret. The neck feels more like an electric than an acoustic and so is nice and quick and easy on the fingers. And, finally, I keep an Ibanez SoundGear four-string bass handy for those times when I just gotta play me some bass.

For strings, I use D’Addario light gauge on all the electrics (‘cept the bass, of course) and just recently switched over to Elixers on the acoustic. I don’t know what’s on the bass. I am notorious for not changing my strings until one breaks. A couple of the guitars have strings that are probably five years old, maybe more.

I use a Samson Airline AG1 wireless rig. Once you go wireless, there’s no going back. I like this model because the transmitter is super small and simply plugs directly into the guitar jack. No pack to clip to a belt or strap. No wires. It runs off a single AAA battery that lasts for about 20 hours. Awesome.

For effects, I long ago sold off all my individual pedals and replaced them with a multi-effects unit. The first was a Boss GT-3, which I still have and use (see below). I purchased a Boss GT-6 at one point, wasn’t super happy with it, and so when the Boss GT-10 came out, I replaced the -6 with the -10 and that’s what I use today. I’ll use the GT-10 in one of two ways. In some circumstances, it’s all I need. I run a line out from the GT-10 to the PA and that’s my sound. No amp. Just direct to the PA. The GT-10 provides amp, cabinet, and mic modeling, and provides a huge number of built-in effects. I can pretty dial in any tone I need. The other way I use it is less flashy, lower tech. I run it’s output to my amp (see below), and simply use the GT-10 as a tuner, a volume pedal, and a wah effect, letting the guitar tone come from the amp.

I have two guitar amplifiers. The older of the two I purchased way back before I purchased that Vantage Explorer. We’re talking circa 1980. It’s a 40W twin 10″ solid state amp. And at that vintage, it’s pretty bare bones. Just your usual controls and a spring reverb as the only on-board effect. And that was my amp until a couple of years ago. At that time, not long after LMT formed, Gerry and Truman (y’all remember Truman? Guitar player in LMT until he turned into Wayne?), they went checking out amps as Truman was looking for something. They came back raving about the Vox Valvetronix. So I bought one online, sight unseen. Best. Amp. Ever. I bought the VT80+, a 10″ combo amp that’s a hybrid modeling amp / tube amp. Sounds phenomenal. Super powerful. Compact and lightweight. Eight user presets, selectable by footswitch. Where have you been all my life!

That’s the guitar gear. Looking at it from the LMT point-of-view, my usual setup is: Ibanez RG –> Wireless –> Boss GT-10 –> Vox VT80+ (with the Epiphone Les Paul as guitar #2). And I worry less about the tone for each song and instead have opted for what I think is good solid tone for most occasions. Simplify. Simplify.

But wait! There’s more! (Did I just say simplify?) In the vein of adding sound and layers whenever possible, I dabble with the keys. Meaning that the guitar rig is only half the setup. For keyboards, again let me take you back, this time to the early 90s. I walked into a music store and a Roland JV-30 was just sitting there waiting for me. I couldn’t leave without it. It’s a 56-key (5-octave) digital keyboard containing the full general MIDI sound specification plus the full Roland MIDI sound implementation of that time — pianos, percussion, bass, organs, string, synths — a huge selection of nicely sampled sounds. Add a filter, and reverb and chorus effects, and you’ve got some great sounds to work with. Being as old as it is, things began to go wrong a couple of years back. The battery died, and the info the web indicated that the battery wasn’t replaceable, so user presets could no longer be saved. Then it began losing its tuning, spontaneously dropping a whole step at random. And the MIDI output stopped working. And a key got broken. So recently, I decided to see what I could do to fix it. Taking it apart, I discovered it’s built like a tank. Internal steel space frame! I’m sure a lot of the new stuff is simply plastic. I discovered that I could change the battery. What? The internet was wrong? Impossible! It required removing about three dozen screws but I found the battery holder and, with a simple click, the old one popped out and the new one popped in. I cleaned and recalibrated the bend wheel and that fixed the tuning problem. Using an oscilloscope, I discovered that the MIDI out was indeed functional, at least the clock pulse was appearing at regular intervals, as it should, so there was nothing fundamentally wrong. After a recalibration of the keyboard, and full factory reset of the internal processor and ROM, voila, the MIDI was fully functional again. Finally, I ordered a replacement key on eBay and installed it. The JV-30 is as good as new.

To compliment the JV-30, I have a Yamaha MU15 sound module. By connecting via MIDI to the JV-30, it allows for the layering of sounds. The JV-30 can layer two internal sounds while simultaneously triggering two external sounds via the sound module. Keyboard sounds are all about the layers. I once had a great sound created this way for a cover Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”. The sound module also has buttons on its surface for adjusting parameters. But, happily, these buttons also can trigger sounds and are laid out like a two octave keyboard! So the module itself can be played, if in a somewhat rudimentary fashion.

In the past, there were times when I had also connected up a laptop to the JV-30 via MIDI and used a low latency sound module for audio output. I would use this the JV-30 to trigger samples on the laptop. I used a USB MIDI interface from Steinberg, an M-Audio audio interface, and the Steinberg Halion sampler running on a laptop. I used this in the past to trigger keyboard sounds or effects that I couldn’t play on-the-fly, like for the big keyboard stabs in chorus of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me”. I even wrote my own set list management software at one point that would configure the keyboards, sound modules, and guitar effects unit. Click a song in the list and Bamm! Everything configured and ready to go. Super geek! (Hey! Who said that?). These days, I still have a computer MIDI setup but it doesn’t go to gigs. I have a nice collection of soft synths and drum sets but these are used for recording rather than for live performance. I use the the JV-30 as the controller and it generally stays home. (Although, now that it’s fixed, I’m seeing possibilities)

These days, I have two keyboard setups that I routinely use. One is a Korg microKEY 25 that plugs directly into my iPad, allowing me to play soft synths running as iPad apps. This way I have access to sampled instruments like pianos, organs, strings, but also emulations of some serious classic hardware like the Minimoog and the Oberheim SEM. And, the microKEY and iPad both clamp to my mic stand. Super compact. Sweet. The other setup, the one I use with LMT, consists of a two-tier rig with a MIDI keyboard controller on top connected to Ger’s wife Kim’s Yamaha keyboard. The Yamaha has a super sweet 80s synth lead sound that is awesome on “Just What I Needed” and “Call Me”. I can play the Yamaha directly, but can also play a second sound via the MIDI controller. The output of the keyboard goes to my Boss GT-3 multi-effects unit (remember that from the guitar rig discussion above?), for phasing, flanging, and other effects.

For a microphone, I have an Audiotechnica ATM41HE. A dynamic mic a lot like an SM58, which I have as a backup, but a little clearer and crisper.

So there you have it. All the guitar and keyboard gear. And for playing live with LMT, I’ve whittled it down to merely two guitars, wireless unit, multi-effects, amp, two keyboards, and a second multi-effects. Simplify I think I said. Hmmm. Well. Maybe that just ain’t me.

P.S. There’s also the LMT practice PA system.

mikerobLMT practices at my place. I have part of my basement configured as a studio — isolation room, control room, all the hardware and software needed for multitrack recording. Check out dBu Recording Studio. That’s me.

When LMT practices, all of the signals are run through the studio interface, then out to a Mackie 1604-VLZ3 mixer where the practice levels are set, then from there to an Amcron power amp and ultimately to four JBL wedge monitors. The hardware interfaces and mixer are mine. And I still have the Alesis MultiMix-8 8-channel mixer mentioned way above, but it stays at home and gets used on rare occasions where I need a separate mix. The power amp and JBL wedges belong to a buddy of mine. My use of them is rent for providing storage space for them 😉

During practice, we run a total of ten channels: four vocals, two guitars, bass, keyboard, my iPad (for playback of material while learning), and Robbie’s electronic drums. Even though the guitar and bass amps are plenty loud enough for the space, I find it is easier to hear when the sound is coming from the PA monitors. It’s less directional and easier to balance the levels.