Choosing live gear for gigs

In just under two weeks time I’m running and playing at the Music for the Head and Heart showcase in Leeds, with my band “The Heartache” along with Towse and Harry Orme.

This evening will showcase the Covering these tracks album released at the event. The material is all acoustic, so I have to make some decisions on which gear to use in the live situation. I’ve learned over the years to think really carefully about what works best in a live situation. When I played Lagoa Guitar Festival main stage, I use a Red Eye pre amp straight into the PA with my two ukuleles and with a great sound engineer, I had great sound. This is the most stripped down set up of all set ups, that still delivers sonically.

Keep it simple

I’ve learned to keep live gear choices simple, or there can be all manner of problems. I few years ago I ran support for an artist who insisted on a large number of acoutsic instruments all very different and with respect not of the best quality. The sound engineer was tearing his hair out at the soundcheck that wend on for almost two hours and even after this there were major sound issues including an ongoing loud hum that made for a really poor listening experience. My ensemble were left with just ten minutes to do a sound check, but we had perfect sound as we had much more reliable gear and kept everything simple.

I had just two guitars and used a Supro Comet amp with just one pedal used on one song. Good quality reliable leads are also essential in these situations. Too many variable factors is a recipie for disaster. If I am using a few pedals a “Quartermaster” isolation unit is essential. This keeps each pedal isolated from the other pedals, so its total peace of mind for any sonic issues.

For acoustic sounds, there’s only one choice – Henriksen bud amps

For any acoustic gigs, including the upcoming Leeds showcase, the Henriksen amps are the only choice. I came across these years ago and have never looked back. Previously I’d used Schertler amps that sounded good, but nothing like the Henriksens. Not only are the Henriksens a fraction of the size, they are also a fraction of the weight. I have a couple of two channel bud amps and a one channel blu unit as well as a bunch of extension cabs. There’s nothing that comes close sonically and they offer a huge range of sonic options and crucially are 100% reliable.

The Parker Bronze

For the Music for Head and Heart showcase, I’m gonna use my Parker Bronze guitar. This is a rare and ususual guitar, favoured by Joni Mitchell, but vert rare these days as they are no longer made. They are super light and the Parker Bronze has a great bespoke Fishman pickup that creates a terrific acoustic sound that is tough to get in a live situation.

Unusually for me, this will be my only instrument on the night, following my own advice to keep it simple!

Rewiring the Big Rig, inc Soldano X99, Groove Tubes Dual 75 and Mesa Boogie 290

We just started rewiring the big rig in the studio which is a monster task as there are three main power amps, the Mesa Boogie 290, VHT amp and the new super rare Groove Tubes Dual 75 that covers all the Fender tones. I’ve only ever seen one other Groove Tubes 75 and that was 20 years ago in Amsterdam. Its a monster power amp designed to fit with the Groove Tubes Trio, which I bought 20 years ago. The combination is extraordinary and when played through two Mesa Boogie 1 x 12 cabs, it covers all the classic Fender tones in spades.

I’m using the Soldano Space box as a 100% analogue reverb and again this is super rare. I’ve never seen another one and the combination is terrific.

Egnater M4 and MTS modules

The big rig contains a number of Egnater and Randall modules which are run via two Egnater M4 units. These are also super rare and I bought both of these many years ago directly from Egnater in the USA. I remember having to wait for the second M4 in line after Steve Vai who swears by these units. The MTS modules are faithful reproductions of classic preamps by Bruce Egnater, including the Fender Bassman, Vox and other amps. Randall also made some of these but never found a way to properly market them.

Soldano X99 from Martin Barre

Years ago I heard about the Soldano X99 and asked Manson Guitars to look out for one of them for me. On the phone the Manson guy busst out laughing commenting “Nick, do you know how rare these are?” I later found out that only 200 were made and only 3 with UK voltage. Manson’s rang me 6 months later with one brought in from Martin Barre from Jethro Tull and I grabbed it.

I also have a Soldano SP77 which is the sister preamp to the Soldano X99 and is also rare, but not as rare as the X99. The VHS power amp is the perfect companion for these units, giving a classic rock tone.

Synergy SYN 1 and MTS units

Bruce Egnater and other builders combined to create the Synergy company to market the classic pre amp modules. The Synergy SYN 1 is a single unit module that is perfect either as a DI recording device or to play live. I have two of these in the studio and they work brilliantly as well as being really well made.

The rig requires a lot of cables and a Quartermaster unit for switching some of the preamps. I’m running these units out though two Mesa Boogie cabs, two two rock cabs and a Bognor 2 x 12 cab. This creates literally all sonic options. Its 100% a studio rig and not for playing out, as it would take a team of people to transport all this gear!

Guitar tubes for classic guitar sounds

I’ve always been a massive fan of guitar amps, preamps and combos that are driven by tubes or as we say in the UK, ‘valves” To my ears there is something about the sound that has never been replicated by digital and solid state units. I recently took ownership of an extremely rare Groove Tubes 75 stereo amp, which I found on “Gumtree” of all places. Over 25 years ago I bought the Groove Tubes Trio preamp that fits with this, which replicates all the great Fender guitar tones. I’ve only ever seen one of these Groove Tubes 75 amps and that was in Amsterdam. Its a big unit that takes up four rack spaces and is pretty heavy. It uses three different types of guitar tube, 12 AX7, 6L6 and EL34s.

Groove Tubes 75 power amp

Egnater, Randall and Synergy modules

Many years ago I came across a modular preamp system created by Bruce Egnater. Bruce created a series of modular units that could be slotted in and out of a preamp chassis, and these all analogue hand built units perfectly replicated the sound of classic amps. This meant you could have a simple unit and quickly switch from a Fender to a Marshall to a Vox or any other kind of sound you wanted. The M4 units would house up to four different modules, each of which had two channels. This makes for a massive range of sonic choices for any guitarist and all these units were powered by a pair of 12 AX7 tubes. There was no UK distribution for these preamps and there were only 3 places in the USA you could buy from. I bought my first M4 from the wonderfully named Cowtown Guitars in Las Vegas and later persuaded Egnater to deal with me directly. When I bought the second M4 case these were clearly in demand for high end studios and I was third in line to Steve Vai and Def Leppard who had the first two units!

Super Rare Soldano X99 Preamp

I heard about the Soldano X99 preamp over 20 years ago and checked out the two major guitar specialist stores to see if a purchase was possible. When I rang one store owner, I was greeted with hysterical laughter as he commented “Nick, do you know how rare these units are?” To my great surprise, 9 months later he rang me to say ‘Martin Barre from Jethro Tull just brought in his X99 and you are first on a long list of people wanting this, so if you want it, I need to know NOW!

Supro amps

In recent years, I’ve become a massive fan of Supro amps and especially the Comet 1 x 10 combo that was recommended by my great Nashville guitar friend Michael Ross. He runs Guitar Moderne which is a great site for all guitarists. The Supro has a bite to its sound and I first used this live with “The Heartache” last year live. Its a one channel amp with a ten inch speaker and like all classic class A amps weighs a fair bit. That said its a terrific sound unlike anything else I have heard. I later bought the Royal Reverb pictured below which is seriously heavy, but much LOUDER! Both these amps use classic 6L6 tubes

Supro Royal Reverb

Guitar tube prices are cranking and David Gilmour’s stash

With the current global situation there are only a few places left that make guitar tubes and one of the main ones is in Russia. Tubes are therefore getting rarer and a lot pricier. Many years ago I knew one of the reps for Mesa Boogie amps and he arranged for me to have a tour of their USA factory. I’d also heard that Mesa still had some of the classic Phillips 6L6 tubes and at the end of the tour asked about this. “How did you know about these the owner remarked? These are mostly reserved for Dave Gilmour!” I persuaded them to let me have some of these items which I put in my Mesa Boogie 290 power amp in my studio. Twenty five years on, I’m running the same tubes and of course Dave Gilmour didn’t grab a stack of these without good reason!

The Acme Motown D.I. WB-3

My terrific bass player Fergus Quill told me about the Acme Motown D.I. WB-3 which I had never heard of. Not only had I never heard of it, but my fellow tech enthusiasts had never seen or tried one. I started to investigate and immediately found that there were none second hand which is one of the signs of great gear.

Acme Motown D.I. WB-3

I was originally going to travel to New York where I could try one out, but the global pandemic made that impossible. My wife then managed to get one for my birthday from the excellent folks at KMR in London.

I’ve been playing with it for the last 24 hours and can I can see why studios and players are so impressed with this unit. The price will put a few folks off and my producer commented “What? A DI box at that price? Then he heard a clip, and admitted that it sounded great.

I had a similar reaction to the Fire Eye Red DI’s that I have blogged on previously, but the Acme Motown D.I. WB-3 is a different beast. I’ve used it as a straight DI into a desk and it 100% gives the natural sound of the instrument. Its one of those pieces of gear that gives that elusive extra 20% for those wanting great sound.

It also sounds fantastic when plugged into a simple fender small combo. The sound is smoother and more musical. I’ll be spending more time with this simple unit that is built like a tank and sounds terrific. I can see why many studios love this box and I’m super pleased to have one.

Mains Power Adjustments

Eurovolt by Brown Box

I have always known that mains voltage affects the quality of sound as for years I have used Russ Andrews power conditioners in my home entertainment systems. I have also been a big fan of Furman power conditioners when playing live with the Henriksen Bud amps.

Introducing The Brown Box Eurovolt Unit

I heard about Brown Box from my good friend Michael Ross in Nashville who runs the superb Guitar Moderne platform. Over the years Michael has given me the heads up on many brilliant artists and gear and this is one of the best recommendations. I knew that the Brown Box was used by many artists including Derek Trucks, but I only just found out that Brown Box made a UK/European version. “The Eurovolt” and so I grabbed one.

This week we tested the Eurovolt with my Two Rock Jet combo. I had seen the YouTube video from Eurovolt which was really useful showing how to use the unit.
Eurovolt Brown Box

I expected to notice a difference in sound, BUT wow it was like night and day with adjusting the voltage using the Eurovolt Brown Box. The adjustments to bring the voltage up made the amp sound so much sweeter and dynamic, we were really quite shocked.

In days gone by, I never really understood why sometimes I’d plug in and the amp sounded a bit flat. I’ve even though of moving on amps thinking after such situations not realising how important it is to get the right voltage.

Safety issues and tube wear

As well as sound considerations, when playing live the Eurovolt often the voltage at venues (and I’m being polite) can be “variable” at best. Using the eurovolt means piece of mind as well as looking after the amp tubes. The Two Rock uses military spec 6V6 tubes that sound amazing anyway, but at their very best with this unit. Great tubes are hard to come by and can be expensive to replace, especially through voltage spikes.

Often these kind of niche devices are quite hard to come by and often disappear, so become highly sought after by artists. I suspect this will be a terrific investment and of course there’s nothing so great to play through as a great sounding amp. I’ll be using this on my next 2020 recording project.

Two Rock amp with Brown Box Eurovolt

Ear Trumpet Mics

Myrtle Ear Trumpet Mic

I first came across Ear Trumpet Mics when I saw The Secret Sisters play a live gig in the UK. They used an Ear Trumpet Myrtle mic for part of their set and it sounded fantastic.

On my 60th birthday I received one of these as a present and I’m seriously impressed. Like all great gear the Myrtle Ear Trumpet Mic works best in a specific context and is a far cry from all rounder mics like the SM58s. I’ve been testing the myrtle with a Henriksen Blu amp and a Henriksen Ray cab and I am pleased to say it sounds fantastic. Just as the Blu reproduces the instrument sound perfectly, the Ear Trumpet Myrtle does the same for vocals. I love the simplicity of the mic and it seems very “old school” in the best possible way.

The Myrtle works brilliantly for vocals as well as acoustic instruments. This is a very different way of working and even in the first day of trying this out, I absolutely love it. I’ll get the chance to try it out with others in the Caravan of Dreams this Thursday and next week we’ll test it in the studio.

Henrksen Blu live outing – Less is more

I have blogged a great deal on the excellent Henriksen Bud amps and last week I took the one channel Henriksen Blu out for the first Caravan of Dreams live outing. The venue had a very small stage and with The Caravan of Dreams there are five of us, so space is tight. I decided to take the most stripped down rig I could and that meant only taking the nine pound Henriksen Blu and a Lava Ultramafic cable. We took a DI out from the Henriksen Blu as well as miking it up. Usually, I will also take a preamp/volume booster, but this time I didn’t bother. The challenge with ukuleles and other small bodied instruments is to get great sound. In the world of ukuleles often the sound is far from great and often really horrible. It’s not easy to find a good solution as different ukes respond differently and there is in my experience no one solution for all situations.

The Henriksen Blu has 120 watts and superb EQ, so there’s a huge amount of sonic flexibility. It’s also wonderfully small, but more than loud enough for live situations. In the Caravan of Dreams ensemble, I’m competing with percussion, double bass, piano and violin, so I need an amp that will cut through. The major lesson in taking the Blu out for live gigs is that often “Less is more” and this was probably the best on stage sound I have come across to date, just fantastic. 

I admit to being a sound obsessive, but make no apologies for this. I like to hear the very best sound and have discussed this at length with fellow musicians and my good friend Martin Simpson who wonderfully described the Henriksen Bud (a two-channel version of the Blu) as ‘a tone monster”

Henriksen Bud amps for sonic excellence

Ever since I started collecting ukuleles I have explored finding the very best acoustic amplification and settled now on Henriksen Bud amps. I originally got the heads up from Gerald Ross in the USA on the Henriksen bud and these are now my go-to amps for all acoustic work. They also sound great with my Collings I35 and for the first time I’m having to review my belief that tube based amps are always the way to go!

I have tried and used all manner of acoustic amps including Marshalls, Acus, Schertler, Fender, and AER among others. The Schertlers are my second choice as they are neutral sounding, but they are extremely heavy and don’t sound as good as the Henriksen Buds. The problem with many acoustic amps is that they colour the sound and even a 2000 quid top flight AER still to my ears is “ok” but not as good as the Bud. 


Peter Henriksen is well known for creating great jazz amps and with the Henriksen Bun he has managed to combine an amp that’s 120 watts, terrific sonic output which is also extremely light. This two-channel amp perfectly amplifies the natural sound of the instrument. The single channel Henriksen Blu is even lighter than the Henriksen Bud and is perfect for artists who travel a lot as it can literally be taken as hand luggage. As soon as I plugged into one of these units I was amazed at how much better these units are from everything else and have never looked back. 

I have three Henriksen extension cabs including the new Henriksen Ray cab. The Henriksen Ray is a terrific addition to the collection. This cab creates a much bigger sound and works brilliantly with either the Bud or the Blu. I appreciate that I may be heading into Billy Gibbons territory, but it’s a total joy to play through these units. I’ll be taking the Ray out for the first time this week when we do our debut as “The Caravan of Dreams” at one of the low key gigs ahead of a full album launch May 2019. 

Sony WM1A Walkman® Signature Series

Recently I have been trying out the new Sony WM1A Walkman. I first bought a Sony HD Walkman a few years ago after being seriously impressed by the sound which was vastly better than the iPod and other audio devices I have tried to date. The Sony WM1A Walkman is Sony’s really high-end audio device and it’s been useful taking it out for a test drive.

Like the original ZX1 unit, the new Sony WM1A Walkman plays FLAC files, but it also plays native DSD files. DSD is a very high-resolution audio format, higher than CD quality and in some cases higher quality than other HD download formats like FLAC-HD and ALAC-HD. DSD stands for Direct Stream Digital, which is a method of converting analogue sound to the digital domain. 

I admit to being a massive audio enthusiast and over the years have explored many sound formats including SACD, Japanese SACD (these are pretty rare and all the actual discs are emerald greed with amazing packaging) DVA and high-resolution FLAC downloads from HD tracks. When I first started looking at high-resolution formats, I was amazed at how much more you can hear. It’s like watching high definition as opposed to standard definition. One you literally see the difference you never look back.

The Sony WM1A Walkman is the best sounding playback unit I have heard to date, quite extraordinary. A great listening reference is Bob Dylan’s “Oh Mercy” which has terrific production by Daniel Lanois. I have this album in CD format, FLAC 24bit high resolution and now as a DSD file. The DSD is the best sounding of the three and is quite extraordinary sonically, a real testament to how it was recorded. Of course, such playback devices reveal everything in the mix and everything is then highlighted in spades.  Many live concerts from Bruce Springsteen’s main site are available in DSD and it’s like being at the actual event, the sound is so good.