Electro-harmonix Riddle: Q-balls

I got a new thing! I’ve got a few transcriptions that I’m working on that have a specific effect applied, and it seemed like a fun excuse to dive in to the world of electrified sax effects.

So I picked up an Electro-harmonix (‘EHX’) Riddle: Q-Balls pedal. Although it’s squarely marketed at guitar players, it’s pretty versatile, and is pretty effective for saxophone as well.

What does it do? I’m glad you asked! It’s an envelope filter. It takes the input (your sound) and modifies it in different ways depending on what settings you choose. It’s kind of like a ‘wah’ pedal, but instead of moving a pedal, it modifies each note automatically.

EHX makes a similar pedal, the Q-Tron, which is a bit cheaper. However, after some research, I decided to go with the Q-balls pedal because it has more configuration options. This makes it more flexible, but also more complex to learn. I have a feeling I’m going to stick to just a few settings on the pedal, so it may be that the additional flexibility is lost on me, or maybe I wouldn’t be able to get the sound I need out of the Q-tron. I have no plans on getting one, so I don’t plan on doing a comparison any time soon.

So let’s dive in to some of the settings and what they do. The picture is the settings that I landed on after about an hour of experimentation.

From left to right:

  • Blend: This is the mix of the wet/dry signal. I went with 100% wet. I’m replicating a pretty specific effect which isn’t subtle, so I went all the way.
  • Mode: There are three ‘pass’ filters – low, medium, and high. This drives what frequency range the pedal operates on. Even with Tenor Sax, I found I had to use the HP mode or the effect was negligible. I suspect Alto would be the same. Maybe Bari would warrant the medium pass, I’ll have to experiment.
  • Attack/Decay: The next two knobs determine how dynamic the effect is with respect to note changes, attacks, and releases. I went with the most sensitive settings.
  • Start/Stop: This is where the most experimentation happened. Since this is a filter sweep, the start and stop knobs determine the frequency range (pitch) that the effect starts and stops on. So you need to match the starting range to the range that you’re predominantly playing in (where you want the effect to be the most dramatic). Stop gives you different sounds if you set it above vs. below the start knob. The distance between the two determines how wild the effect will be.
  • Q/Sensitivity: I didn’t play around with these much. I just went with the ‘all-in’ settings since anything less seemed ineffective.
  • Bypass switch: Turns the effect on and off
  • Distortion: Boosts the signal like crazy!

I’ll continue to play with the pedals and the settings, I’m sure I’ll learn much more about how to get exactly the sound I’m looking for. I’ll post a video shortly.

A quick word about saxophone effects – there is a steep learning curve! Adding even a single effect to your sound complicates your life greatly. You have to first figure out how to get a line-level signal from your mic to the pedal. Then you need to be able to monitor the pedal output, as well as amplify it for the audience somehow.

The thing to remember is that these effects are not for you, they are for the audience. You will never hear what they hear. When you’re playing, the acoustic sound of the horn resonates through your head in a very powerful way, so no matter how hot your in-ear monitors are, you’re never hearing the 100% wet signal, it’s always mixed in with the acoustic sound of your horn. So it’s important to record and listen back until you get things really dialed in.

Similarly, when it comes to live playing, these aren’t going to be very useful in intimate settings where there is little or no amplification. If your sax isn’t prominent in the house mix, the effect is lost.

All that said, effects can be a lot of fun to tinker with. Just don’t lose sight of the music. Make sure that you’re using these effects in a musical way to augment ideas that are interesting, not just as a gimmick.



New Alto!

I’ve played the same Mark VI Alto for almost 30 years now. It’s a good horn, but not a great one. I’ve played other Mark VIs that were better, but I’ve never played a ‘modern’ horn that came close to it in any aspect.

For years now I’ve been on the lookout for a ‘backup’ horn. I know that my Mark VIs are irreplaceable. The market for them has gone through the roof. If anything happened to any of mine, it would be very difficult to replace any of them. Searching for the right horn would take time, and once I found it I’d have to pay dearly for it.

Further, I can’t really get my horns worked on because I can’t be without any of them for more than a few days at a time. Having a backup just makes sense.

IMG_20160528_204349So when my friend Rick mentioned that he was considering selling his Conn 6M, I was intrigued. It seems like all of the players in Seattle have switched from Selmer to Conn in the past five years, or maybe I’m just starting to notice it? I’ve played Conns before, but mostly Tenors and not Alto. My biggest complaint is that the keywork feels antiquated. The ergonomics are just not there, and there seem to be many rube-goldberg-esque mechanisms that are overly complicated and prone to failure.

But, that sound! As soon as I played this horn I could tell that it was a player. It definitely needs some work. There are notes that can’t really be played, and the micro-tuner (which is new to me), wobbles when  you play. But the horn is really responsive, and seems to play pretty well in tune (perhaps better than my Mark VI). The altissimo pops right out!

It’s going to take some work, and some adjustment on my part, but I’m digging the new horn so far. I don’t know if it will ever become my primary horn, but we’ll see how I feel once I get it back into fighting shape. The next challenge is finding a good repair guy in Seattle. I’ve been taking my horns to Paul Maslin in Chicago since he sold me the Mark VI 30 years ago, but I don’t get out that way as often as I used to.

New Alto Mouthpiece!

Yesterday I got a new Alto mouthpiece in the mail! I’ve been playing RPC mouthpieces on Tenor and Bari for a few years now, but for some reason I never made the switch on Alto.

I’ve grown increasingly unhappy with my current Alto mouthpiece – a Lakey 7*3, which I’ve been playing for about five years. It’s got a nice edge to it, and it projects well, but the sound is a bit shrill and thin for my taste. It’s also difficult to control. The pitch is squirrelly and I find it hard to control. it doesn’t squeak, but notes will randomly ‘crack’, playing a different partial/overtone than what’s intended. I’ve never had that problem with any of my previous mouthpieces.

Anyway, I got a ’90B’ mouthpiece from Ron Cohelo. Ron is a great guy. He hand-makes each mouthpiece to order. With each mouthpiece, he has taken the time to talk to me at length about my approach and concept for that horn, what I’m going for, what I’ve tried, reed preferences, the works. He works alone, so the process can take awhile, but it’s worth it.

The new mouthpiece will take some getting used to, but my initial impressions are very positive. It still projects well, and can get a nice bright sound without sounding shrill and thin. But overall it sounds warmer. It’s also much more stable and centered. The pitch has been excellent, and I haven’t had any control problems.

That said, I’ll have to work with it for a while to get comfortable again. I’ve got to find my altissimo notes on this new mouthpiece. I’ve also got to experiment with some reeds. I had been playing 2.5 ‘green box’ Vandoren Java reeds with the Lakey, but these feel too soft now. Ron sent a few different strength Rico Jazz Select reeds to try, and they all worked well. But so far my preference with the new mouthpiece has been for 2.5 ‘red box’ Java reeds.

I’ve also noticed that my Francois Louis ‘pure brass’ ligature doesn’t work well with the shape of the Alto RPC (which is odd because it works fine on Tenor). I can’t seem to tighten it enough to keep it from slipping. Luckily, Ron provides a simple (he calls it ‘cheap’) ligature with the mouthpiece. But it works surprisingly well! Maybe ligatures are over-rated…they just need to keep the reed in place after all.

BTW, I don’t get any endorsements for mouthpieces or reeds from any of the manufacturers I mention here or on my gear page. These are just my honest opinions 🙂