This year my amp and affects setup has gone through a tremendous amount of change. Nothing forces you to fine-tune and re-evaluate like the trial-by-fire that is playing live consistently. Despite all of the tweaking, I've finally settled into a pretty good setup that should last for the foreseeable future.
More than anything else, I've always wanted a flexible rig. Being in a cover band that takes pride in getting as close to the original recordings as we can requires more than just a guitar and an amp. I need a lot of tonal flexibility to cover our set-list which means having guitars with more than one usable pickup configuration, a broad palette of effects and an amp capable of a variety of tones.
When it comes to guitars, I always take two to a gig. If nothing else, it's good to have a backup ready to go on the rare occasion that I break a string. All of my gigging guitars are Floyd Rose-equipped which means any string replacements need to happen on a break between sets.
These days I've pretty much settled on the Ibanez JEM 7VWH and EVH Wolfgang Special as my go-to guitars for gigging. The JEM is an incredibly versatile all-around guitar and tends to be the one I play the most. The Wolfie has slightly meatier pickups and the all-important D-Tuna for the handful of drop-D tunes we play. Between those two I cover pretty much all of the tonal ground I need to with extra benefit of redundancy in case I break a string.
For the last few years I've viewed my EVH 5150 as my primary rock amp. While it's widely considered to be in the category of "high-gain" amplifiers, I've found it to be surprisingly versatile in the context of a rock-band. The downside is that to get a proper three-channel version with separate tone-stacks for each channel you have "super-size" and get the 100-watt model. While the 5150 sounds absolutely glorious when paired with an EVH 4x12 cabinet, it is an absolute beast to lug around and set up. For many of the venues we play, it's simply way too much amplifier, akin to bringing a bazooka to a knife fight.
In an attempt find something close but in a smaller package I bought a very capable Marshall DSL40C combo amp. It has two decent channels and you can step the power-tubes down which is nice for rehearsing in a smaller space. On some nights some real tube-gremlin magic has happened and I've pulled tones out of that thing that rival or beat the 5150. The Marshall quickly became my normal gigging amp except for special occasions when I couldn't pull out the 5150.
All of this changed dramatically when I played and then bought a Kemper Profiling Amplifier. It easily recreated any of the current amps that I was using for playing out live and offered to do it without the need for ear-splitting volume. Even better its incredibly flexible signal-routing meant no need for the sound-guy to ever put a mic on a cabinet again.
Because of the Kemper's ability to capture and model the unique sound of guitar cabinets I went with the somewhat unorthodox approach of pairing it with a FRFR (full-range, flat-response) speaker cabinet from Mission Engineering. Normal guitar cabinets are anything but flat-response. They are highly biased, tuned speakers that are an integral part to shaping the final sound you experience. Try playing a normal song through a guitar cabinet sometime to get an idea of how much they color the final sound.
Another nice benefit to the Mission Engineering cabinet is that it's been specifically built to provide a more omni-directional sound meaning that even if it's placed right on the floor at a gig, I can hear better than a traditional guitar cabinet in the same position.
If I had simply replaced my existing amps with the Kemper I would have bought myself a lot of tonal flexibility, but not much savings in terms of transportation and setup. Up to this point my gigging setup included an enormous pedal-board controlled by the amazing Boss ES-8. It's jam-packed with specially chosen pedals and was wired up with care and precision.
However what has truly been a real game-changer for me is discovering the depth and quality of the Kemper's built-in effects. Aside from one or two special patches from my Eventide PitchFactor, I could easily replicate all of the other pedals on my pedalboard. For those last few patches, I swapped the PitchFactor out for the much more capable (and smaller) Eventide H9.
The Kemper also offers all of the programmability and customization that the Boss ES-8 does but in a much simpler way. So yeah, that really cool ES-8 I just bought and learned how to program? That's probably going on Craigslist pretty soon—the price of progress I suppose.
The key to making this all work was getting the Kemper Profiler Remote which is an extremely well-built footswitch/control-center for the Kemper. It has a wonderfully bright, high-contrast screen for playing on dark stages. Songs are organized into "performances" each of which have up to five "slots" which are configurations of profiled amps, cabinets and effects. The remote also lets me dynamically enable and bypass effects as needed. I plugged in a couple of other footswitches typically used for MIDI gear for one-shot momentary switches (good for that flanger in "Unchained") as well as volume and wah-wah pedal effects.
What about the H9? When I first started playing guitar and devoured any and all guitar magazines I could get my hands on I would read about these elaborate customized Bob Bradshaw racks that all my heroes were playing with. Many of them included a mystical device of enormous power known as the Eventide H9000 Ultra-Harmonizer. Back then, a device like that cost tens of thousands of dollars and was about as achievable then as me owning a Ferrari is today.
Fast forward twenty years and Moore's Law has shrunk the H9000 down into a foot pedal that costs a few hundred bucks and is programmable from my iPhone. It's hard to overstate the quality of Eventide's gear. A few years ago I purchased a PitchFactor and was completely blown away by how good it sounded. The PitchFactor was Eventide's first attempt to break the H9000 into several more affordable pedals.
As always, progress marches on and the H9 made it possible to re-integrate all of those pedals back into a single unit at a reasonably affordable price. The H9 is flat-out amazing. Epic delays? Lush reverbs? Bizarre special-effects from alien worlds? World-class pitch-shifting? It's all in there. I haven't even scratched the surface of what it can do, but I'm pretty damn sure that it's the perfect complement to the Kemper's impressive line-up of built-in effects.
Along with the ten million other amazing things the Kemper does, it also speaks MIDI. That means that I can simply connect a MIDI cable from the Kemper to the MIDI-enabled H9 and send it program changes as I switch performances. The H9 is physically connected to the Kemper's effects loop and so routing signal to it is simply a matter of adding a "Loop" effect in the chain of effects on the Kemper to route signal out to the H9 and back.
This is very similar to the MIDI hijinks I pulled off with the ES-8 and PitchFactor, but the Kemper is much easier to configure and program than the ES-8. That's not a knock against the ES-8 as much as high-praise for the Kemper's extremely flexible, yet usable, user-interface.
Compare these two pedalboard setups between the old ES-8-driven board and my new Kemper setup:
Which one would you rather have to manage in the heat of battle?
At the end of the day all of these massive changes have resulted in a much more flexible, dynamic, consistent, compact setup than I started the year with. It took a pretty large leap of faith to leave all of that beloved analog gear behind and embrace the radical approach of the Kemper.
But after gigging with it pretty solidly for the last few months, I'm convinced that I made the right decision. Setup and teardown takes half the time it used to. Soundguys are delighted when I just hand them an XLR cable and tell them "just plug that into the mixer". When the gig is over at one in the morning and its time to pack up and head home, it all fits into a much smaller and more comfortable car to get back home. Unloading when I get home only takes two trips to the car and I'm in bed ten minutes later.
This setup probably isn't for everyone. The Kemper is a very complex beast and it's clearly built by engineer-types. But that's what I am too and so its user-interface, layout and features make sense to me. It also a pretty brave step into a technology (digital) that has historically failed to deliver the goods. But this thing is for real. If you don't believe me, come out and see us some time and then tell me what you think.