Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - February 2019

Saturday, February 16, 2019

$200 Guitar Review: Monoprice DLX strat-clone

 Back when I started playing guitar in 1837, we had to make do with rusty chicken wire stretched between a limb cut from a briar bush, and we liked it I tell you!!!

 Not really.  I had a super heavy thick ply body explorer made by a company called Hondo, which I believe was an Idonesian manufacturer in the 80's.  It was "ok", better than prior generations had.  Having said that, it was plywood.  The neck was literally as thick as a baseball bat, irregularly sawn with a thick laquer that was super-sticky, thin, small and soft frets that were quickly worn out.  The tuners were plastic wanna-be Schallers that slipped really bad.  Crummy humbucking pickups.  The bridge was ok for what it was, a hard tail with solid saddles, maybe made of brass.  The truss rod didn't work, and the action had to be kind of high because the frets were pretty poorly slotted.

 It was about $275 in 80's money. Uhg.  I replaced it with my first "real" guitar, an Eddie Van Halen-era Kramer Pacer Imperial, about $500.  Half of a THOUSAND dollars!!!  Paid for by teaching guitar lessons, but still living at home so I managed it.  

 A few weeks a go a student of mine John Butts brought in something he couldn't resist trying: a $200 strat bought from, the HDMI cable-selling online company.

 What I first noticed: an actual Wilkinson bridge.  I don't know if the metal is case-hardened, but the bridge is I believe as thick as any Wilkinson I've encountered - in other words it doesn't appear to be a cheaper version.  The aftermarket version of this bridge goes for about $100 by itself.  The bridge posts have inserts, and the tremolo bar is not the basic screw in type.  Very unexpected at this price point.

The fit and finish is apparent at this point.  Where the pick guard is cut out you can see it's parallel with the sides of the bridge (the front of this particular bridge is at an angle, don't go by that...).  It appears symmetrical from side to side.  Pick guard alignment is usually the easiest tell for a hyper-cheap guitar.

 The nut was cut well, and again the fit/finish here was good.  No "we're in a hurry" filing marks on the nut, the edge is flush, the slots parallel and the appropriate widths. The clear coat is also not showing evidence of runs here, and the cut of the end of the neck is again parallel to the nut and doesn't betray sketch tooling.

 The height was good as well.  They didn't err on the high side - it's "quite low" but not too low, a tricky thing on a cheap guitar.  

 In the picture below you can see where most cheap guitars go wrong, or hide a multitude of sins: the fret ends.  These were perfectly flush with the edge.  No evidence of glue slopped around (or used to fill in undercut frets to make up the gap (common with more expensive guitars sometimes)).  It is a 2 piece neck - there is a separate fingerboard instead of one piece, but this is good in a cheap guitar as it will be dimensionally more stable.  

 The finish is a thin satin alcohol urethane I'm presuming, over knot-free maple.  The grain was actually fairly tight as shown here, and straight.  The fingerboard was of a lighter color - something you wouldn't expect on a "nicer" guitar, but has zero functional impact. 


 In the next picture you can see what is maybe the most important arbiter in a "good" guitar versus a bad quality instrument.  The tightness of the gap (or lack of one) where the neck meets the body; the accuracy of the manufacturing and assembly will be evident here.  My Hondo from the 80's was considered "ok" - you couldn't slide a pick in there, but you could maybe get a business card in.  On the Monoprice guitar it's perfectly tight, and straight: again, basically no evidence of sketchy tooling, say 90% perfect. It's hard to get the round part that falls away to not be wavy along the edge, and they did a pretty good job. The fit all the way around the neck joint appears to be uniformly tight.  This would be better than much more expensive guitars in the 90's, and a lot today.  This really sets a standard IMO: there is no reason a more expensive guitar should show any gap or bad milling here these days.  I presume this is the result of latest generation CNC milling.  Also note the neatness of the fret ends, which were nicely beveled, and again perfectly consistent on the sides:

Partially evident in the picture above, the action was setup "quite low" - with zero buzzing or fretting out.  The frets were nicely polished.  I cannot attest to the hardness of the frets or how long they'll last, but given this is aimed at the "quasi-beginner" they'll last long enough.  

 My only beef is that they're of the super tiny old-school Fender size.  A medium jumbo should be the default these days, but that is not really an issue for a $200 guitar. 

 It played well, the tuners were good Chinese Schaller copies and didn't slip, stayed in tune.  The pickups are fairly generic and neutral; not offensive.  The paint/finish was effectively perfect, the flame-veneer looked nice. 

 So here's the bottom line: should a beginner buy this?

 No.  I am guessing that the **$99** Monoprice version is the same guitar, minus the flame-veneer and the Wilkinson bridge. 2 items you don't need on a first guitar.  I would recommend that one instead, or...

 There is a European chain store called Thomann that sells a house-brand of foreign made guitars that are very cleverly specced for their price under the brand "Harley Benton".  I have not played one but they appear to recently be gaining some notoriety in Europe as being a giant-killer purchase.  Barring attempting to order a custom guitar from China, the next step up guitar past the "starter" guitar I would say would probably most likely be a Harley Benton if it turns out they're of a decent build quality, but I can't vouch for that just yet.  They appear to have taken the Chinese contracted-guitar builder business to the next level QC and specification wise, with some very well thought out choices. 

 I would have been loathe to write such a column 15, even 10 years ago.  Fact of the matter is, most "name brand" guitars are built "outside the U.S." - in China or Indonesia.  You're effectively paying for quality control and the name brand on a cheap/sub-$500 guitar.  Despite what is said on YouTube, you can actually order a good quality guitar straight from China if you know how, and are willing to take something of a chance. Thomann / Harley Benton appear to have perfectly understood how to take the sketchiness out of that process for a small up charge (I say appear to because as I've said, I've not actually encountered one yet, so caveat emptor....). 

 Regardless, entry level guitars are now pretty effectively what would have been considered a "professional quality" guitar 15 years ago.  The only precedent for this would have been the first 2 years of the Fender Squier series in the mid-80s made in the Japanese Fuji-Gen factory.  The lower end Ibanezes appear to have a fairly good quality control standard, perhaps the Japanese are still "Japanese" in that regard despite their cheap guitars being built in Indonesia or "elsewhere".  I would have said Ibanez holds the upper hand on fight-to-the-bottom guitar war, but I think as of about the middle of 2018 onward we've reached a new low price wise, and a new quality standard. 

 I literally cannot imagine a good guitar being cheaper, or the quality getting better at this sub-$200 point.  This is partially due to China winning the trade war, but also largely due to advances in computer aided design being coupled so closely to super accurate milling machines.  The accuracy of the neck joint, fret slots, frets (probably auto-cut?) and glued surfaces (fingerboard) and how that adds up in the manufacturing process is a watershed event. 

 There is no reason to have a "bad" guitar in the year 2019.   


Friday, February 8, 2019

Prediction: there will be an A.I./GAN (Generative Adversarial Network) Learning VST Plugin That Will Revolutionize Audio Mixing by 2020

This could happen this year, but certainly within 3 years I would think.

A VST plug in in which you provide a target sound - an example of what you want, basically as many conformal-equalization/convolution plugins do now, but...

... it uses confrontational machine learning based on post-processing a sample of your novel sound.

  The tricky part would be to eliminate pitch from the process, I think. You don't want the plugin to try to pitch correct your guitar input to the target sample's pitch.  Another aspect that might be difficult would be integrating a time constant so that it doesn't just try to do an FFT/convolution/bin based transform.

  There are already plugins that claim to have neural-net based algorithms involved with evaluative processing.  This is not the same as what I am suggesting, in that those plugins are implementing existing IFR tools to alter the sound, as opposed to directly replicating the sound from scratch.  In other words, GANs are already used to make an input - a picture of someone - appear to be someone "new", modified by a GAN having been trained on a data set.

The GAN doesn't know it's changing things we have labels for: colors, shading, angles, etc..  It's just making the data fit what we want it to do.  In the same way, you'd feed your GAN plugin an example of guitar sounds you like, then it would morph your guitar sound based on making an output data set fit your expectation-data set.

This might work really well if applied to speaker simulation, since present convolution based plugins are only applying math linearly with a single value as the input function.  A GAN applied to an example data set of a range of dynamic values into a speaker (equivalent to a bright face versus a dark, high eyebrows or low, etc..) would be able to create a new data set (function applied to a d.i. guitar signal) that would alter the data set in a similar non-linear way across the input range.

 It wouldn't be real time at first, since you'd be applying the process to single buffered time frames - 5 ms chunks overlapping by a 1 am maybe - on a 3 minute input file.  So for each buffered frame you'd apply the GAN function with that frame's input level of sample for the 5 ms (which I think means you'd have to train the GAN on a similar matrix derived from the same time base, 5ms/44.1 khz).  Repeat until EOF.

 I think that such a plugin could be used for "finalizing" guitar sounds and mastering, but also perhaps even for mixing, provided your example target has a similar instrumentation as what you're giving it for an input to transform.

 It would be revolutionary, because it would probably make the bedroom recording result sound deceptively close/identical to Whatever Established Professional Recording one wanted, if "trained" properly.  Or at least one could create a mastering spectral curve/harmonic balance that matched an input data set, that would either create weird artifacts to instrument sounds (in order to make the match) or if the input set was close enough, bring it to the Uncanny Valley and perhaps make it sound strange in that respect as well.  Which would be interesting, and probably attract attention unfortunately for a few years as producers abuse the sound for it's novelty.

 Or, it could simply work very well and "fix" whatever you record to sound as much like the sound of something else you wanted.