Month: June 2014

Distortion of doom: how to get that pedal to the metal synth fuzz

Posted on Updated on

I have to admit it: I never really liked the idea of plugging a synth into a top guitar distortion pedal. Lots of folks have done it in varying contexts. But every time I busted out the Boss Super Overdrive that’s been with me since 1983, something didn’t feel right. But then I heard a couple of records that turned me around. First I heard Orgy’s searing cover of the New Order classic, “Blue Monday.” Not too adventurous as cover versions go, but it had this great distorted bass guitar/synth/I-don’t-what-it-is that sure sounded mean.

Then I discovered the band Deadsy, who used a similar sound, stripped and naked, all over their debut disc, Commencement. This was really killing me. Both Orgy and Deadsy were primarily produced and recorded at the same studio; these guys all seemed to know each other. To cut a long story short, I befriended one the guitarists in Deadsy, and I had my answer. The sound I was hearing wasn’t a guitar or bass, but in fact a Roland JP-8080 synthpatched into a Boss Hyperfuzz pedal. Actually, two of ’em, for stereo. My friend Carlton was controlling all this with a Z-Tar MIDI controller for a sort of futuristic guitar vibe, which I later experienced myself when I filled in on a handful of live shows.

Since then I’ve made a practice of using this big, growling tone in a number of production styles. What’s great is that sounds sort of like power chords, but it’s deeper, darker, and fuzzier, so it’s nice for filling in the space between bass and electric guitar. Of course there are a ton of ways to distort a synth, but I’ve found some really neat ones, and some secrets along the way that I’ll share. Aren’t you lucky?

Let’s make the synth patch. This is simple, and as long as you’ve got a virtual synth with two oscillators, just about anything will do the job. Select sawtooth waveforms on both oscillators. We’ll make the first oscillator the “root” note, and then set the interval on the second oscillator a perfect fifth up; this is equivalent to seven half-steps up. The filter should be the standard lowpass variety. Cutoff frequency will need to be really low, so the distortion doesn’t sound like a total buzz saw, but it’s best to play with the setting once you set up the distortion. The same goes for the resonance setting. We don’t want any filter envelope, so make sure the filter envelope intensity is zeroed out. The amplitude envelope should be a straight on-off affair; attack at zero, decay at zero, sustain full up and release almost zero.

Now we have a relatively dull one-finger power chord patch. Here’s where you’ll want to plug this guy into a distortiondevice. Now, the fuzzbox of choice can make all the difference between blah and blazam, so choose your weapon carefully, rock soldier. What I’ve found is that the best sounding fuzzboxes usually don’t live inside a computer. And the more extreme, the better. Overdrive or tube screamer-type stomp boxes are usually intended for guitarists to beef up their tone a bit when plugging into an already distorted guitar amp–not what we’re after here. Fuzz boxes aren’t meant to preserve the natural tone of the $4,000 Les Paul you just got, they’re meant to destroy it. The aforementioned Boss Hyperfuzz is such a device, and it sounds great for power chord synth mayhem. I’ve found most octave-fuzz devices sound really awesome in this setting. The venerable ProCo Rat makes a neat synthdistorter too. And my secret weapon: the Danelectro French Toast octave-fuzz. Super cheap, super noisy. Sounds amazing with the octave switch on!

When using stomp boxes, keep in mind that their inputs are designed for electric guitars, which have meager output, so turn things down real quiet. Remember to experiment with the synth’s filter cutoff and resonance controls; you’ll be amazed at how dark the filter can get and still achieve great fuzz tones. Another neat trick: Plug the fuzzbox into a real amp or an amp simulator. No crazy gain settings; use a moderate crunch, such as on Fender Twin or Bassman models. And finally, try some stereo chorusing or doubling to widen up your wall of fuzz; always at the end of the chain; chorus plugged into distortion is bad ugly, not good ugly. Until next month, rattle those fillings with the rawk!

The right fit: new woman riders should choose their first motorcycles carefully

Posted on Updated on

Women are the fastest-growing segment of new motorcycle riders in the United States. If you’re a woman who’s recently received your motorcycle driver’s license endorsement, or if you’re still in the exploration phase, we can help steer you to some motorcycles ideal for new riders. (Of course, these bikes and considerations are also applicable to male beginners.)

First, here are some tips to remember when you’re shopping for your first bike:

* Sit on the motorcycle to assess these ergonomic characteristics: Do your feet reach the ground? Can your feet reach the gear shifter and brake pedal comfortably? How comfortable is the reach to the handlebars? How comfortable is the seat? Can your fingers reach the clutch and brake levers? Can you pull in the levers with ease?

* Once you’ve found a few motorcycles you like, test one out on a demo ride, either through your local dealer or at one of the many motorcycle rallies and shows held throughout the country. (You will need a motorcycle endorsement to participate in a demo ride.)


The Buell Blast is the motorcycle used in Harley-Davidson’s Rider’s Edge training classes. The wonderful thing about the Blast is that many riders hold onto it well beyond their beginner years. It’s quite literally “a blast” to buzz around town on, especially when its fuel consumption averages 68 miles per gallon.

The Blast is a standard-style motorcycle for those not sure if they want the laid-back riding style of a cruiser or the zippiness of a sportbike. With 500cc, the Blast has plenty of oomph to it, yet is light enough at 360 lbs. and low enough at 25.5 inches (with the optional low-profile seat) to inspire confidence in beginner riders. MSRP starts at around $4,700.


If a Harley is what you’re after, the Sportster 883L is Milwaukee’s entry-level motorcycle. With a seat height of just 25.3 inches, most riders will have no problem touching the ground flat-footed. Plus, unlike other midsize cruisers, the 883L has a narrow profile seat, so riders with shorter legs won’t lose precious leg inches with a wide saddle.

While the power and torque produced by a 883cc engine is considered aggressive for most beginners, the motorcycle’s small size makes it a breeze to handle. New riders will appreciate how easy it is to pull in the clutch. Harley reduced the clutch effort significantly in recent years.

The Sportster 883 offers a solid, fun ride on a bike that can be outfitted for touring for those who wish to go long distances. MSRP starts at around $7,000.


If you’re not ready to jump to a bigger bike just yet, the Rebel is an ideal machine on which to continue practicing your skills in a parking lot or in a quiet neighborhood. The Honda Rebel 250 is used in many motorcycle training facilities across the country, so you may have already had experience riding one.

A new Rebel starts at around $4,000, but most people opt to buy a used one because they’ll likely be selling it in a year or two. It’s very low with a 26.6-inch seat height, and light enough at 306 lbs. for most beginners to handle. It’s a 250cc motorcycle so its power is limited, although women have been known to travel long distances on a motorcycle this size.


The next step up from the Rebel in the Honda family is the Shadow VLX. This bike has been in Honda’s lineup for years because it’s an ideal first bike. It has an ergonomic setup that many beginner riders like: the seat is comfortable, the handlebar reach is just right, the pegs are in the right place, and the 25.6-inch seat height is more than accommodating. The bike is well balanced and has a low center of gravity.

There are plenty of used VLXs on the market, but many riders like to buy a new one and customize it. Saddlebags, a windshield and a luggage rack all can be bolted on for riding longer distances.

Note: this midsize cruiser only has four speeds instead of the more common five-speed transmission found on bikes of this size. However, most beginning riders won’t find this limiting, as there is a wide enough powerband to provide adequate power when needed. MSRP starts at around $5,500.


This is Yamaha’s entry-level motorcycle and is ideal for riders still skittish about handling a bigger bike. The Virago has a big-bike look, but it’s very lightweight at 302 lbs. and has a low seat height of just 27 inches. A lot of motorcycle rider training classes use a motorcycle just like this one. Some riders fresh from the class may still want to practice what they learned on a bike this size.

The Virago has been in Yamaha’s lineup since 1988 (it was called Route 66 back then), so it’s a good solid motorcycle on which to practice basic riding skills. Since most riders don’t hold onto this bike for long, you might find a used one in reasonable shape. Once you feel comfortable enough on two wheels, you’ll be ready to move to a bigger bike. MSRP starts at around $3,500.


This is the next step up from the Virago in the Yamaha Star Motorcycle lineup. While power is considerably more with a displacement of 650cc, the V Star Custom’s weight and seat height are still manageable for most beginners due to the bike’s low center of gravity. Seat height is only 27.4 inches and the weight is 474 lbs.

The V Star is the bike of choice for many confident beginners because it handles so well and has plenty of power to keep up with bigger bikes and maneuver through traffic. The V Star has plenty of style, too; you get a lot of motorcycle starting at around $6,800. Bolt on a windshield, saddlebags and other touring accessories, and the V Star can take you many miles into your riding life.


Riders looking for an entry-level sportbike motorcycle will find that their options are somewhat limited. Kawasaki’s Ninja 250R is the only 250cc motorcycle dressed in a sporty package (see photo, page 56). It’s lightweight, easy to handle and provides plenty of power through its six-speed powerband. This bike even satisfies the appetite of some experienced riders because of its zippiness at an entry-level price starting at around $3,000.

The 250R is outfitted with Kawasaki’s UNI-TRAK progressive rear suspension and high-performance disc brakes found on the company’s powerful race-inspired bikes. While the 29.3-inch seat height is higher than most other entry-level models, the bike weighs only 304 lbs., so confident beginners may be able handle the weight of the bike on tip-toes.

New riders desiring a sportbike ride should consider the Ninja 250R before hopping on a more powerful bike.


Boulevard is Suzuki’s cruiser line. Boulevard’s two entry-level models are

* the S40, a single-cylinder 655cc motorcycle (similar to the Honda Rebel and the Yamaha/Star Virago), and

* the S50 motorcycle, which has a 819cc V-twin motor. Weighing 443 lbs., S50 is 100 lbs. heavier than the S40, but has the same seat height (27.6 inches). Both are extremely easy to handle, but riders who feel a little more confident will want to lean toward the S50 due to its extra boost in power. Both offer a five-speed transmission, which is a nice feature to have on the smaller bike, but both are priced a little higher than the competition, starting at around $6,500 for the S50, and $4,400 for the S40.

Other motorcycles worth mentioning:

BMW F 650 CS–This is a fun, commuter-style motorcycle that’s lightweight and stands out in a crowd.

Ducati Monster 620–This is an entry-level Ducati for confident beginners who want a naked bike (and who want to make a statement).

Genevieve Schmitt is the founder of, a motorcycling news and information network featuring a comprehensive beginner’s guide for women.

Online shopping – dos and don’ts

Posted on Updated on

One of the major buzzwords of the late ’90s in the press is e-commerce. Most companies, if they are not selling online already, are rushing to join the mass of online merchants. You can purchase virtually anything online – books, videos, software, CD-ROMs, CDs, tapes, downloadable music, posters, apparel, musical instruments and pro and consumer audio products. You can also book travel arrangements, send flowers, buy a car and have your groceries delivered tomorrow morning. All you need is a credit card and many sites will also accept cheques electronically. Of course you can also send in payment by snail mail or place a credit card order by FAX or phone.

So far, a very small portion of Internet users are shopping online although the numbers increase daily and onlineshopping now totals billions of dollars annually. Most of the hesitance is based on fears of having your credit card information stolen or getting ripped off by some far distant unscrupulous company. A lot of the fears concerning credit cards are greatly exaggerated – I would be much more concerned with the security of the mail system and many traditional sales channels. That said, some caution should be exercised.

First, as in any purchase, be aware of the reputation and business practices of any merchants online or not. When visiting websites, be wary of companies with no phone or address listed or just a post office box. The Internet has spawned thousands of basement operations, and although most are probably honest, they will be very hard to find if you have a problem. Look for their number of years in business and such things as money-back guarantees. Call them up and speak to the customer service people and satisfy yourself that they are a real company.

If you are using your credit card online, make sure they are using a secure server that delivers your order information in an encrypted format. If this makes you uncomfortable, place your order by phone or FAX.

If you are purchasing a high-ticket item such as a musical instrument or pro audio gear, you don’t have the chance to try the product, you will have little support or backup and you may have warranty problems, especially for anything purchased in another country. What seems like a bargain may not be if you have problems and need repairs, instruction or support later.

To find products you are looking for you can type product keywords into the major search engines or major music sites. There are also many online malls that connect you to a variety of online retailers.