The mission – how close can Vai’s 1990 guitar tones be emulated?

In 1990 Steve Vai released an epic solo album, Passion and Warfare, with fantastic playing and (imho) fantastic guitar tones.

Passion and Warfare (1990) - Steve Vai

Passion and Warfare (1990) – Steve Vai

Passion and Warfare (PAW) was the first CD I purchased as a kid and one of my favourite albums of all time.  The guitar tones are warm and clear and don’t sound like someone threw a blanket over the cabinet.  I’ve always wanted to play music that had that PAW tonal character—like biting into warm toffee.  Something about it that I like that I’ve never heard in another album, not even in Vai’s later work.

So, I’m on a mission to emulate the rhythm and lead distorted guitar tones of PAW using some quality Ibanez guitars, some pedals, and software for the rest.  Software emulations of speaker cabinets, tube amps, and outboard studio gear are getting increasingly accurate, and to the extent that those emulations come close to the sound of the real thing (I understand they are not perfect, but they are pretty good), I’m hoping to get similarly close to the guitar tones on PAW (or better, if possible, tones of my own that I like even better).

So far, that is proving very challenging!

This inspiring video touches upon Vai’s thinking and motivations during the album’s creation.  The video contains some clues about the gear used to create those sounds, but tone, gear and engineering are not discussed.

On this page I will share information and results I gather on my quest in the hopes that others might find these useful.  A lot of the progress (or lack thereof) is via knob twiddling and trial and error, but occasionally I approach the problem in a more signal-analysis-inspired computer science fashion, which might also prove interesting to certain readers.

I find the guitar tones on PAW unique.  It isn’t possible to go buy some gear from a known list and just get Vai’s 1990 tone.  You could probably do that for his more recent live sound, but I’m focusing here only on PAW, and his work that followed does not have the same sonic character.

Resources

Guitar tone is a problem with a million variables, so having any information to narrow the search is (hopefully) very helpful and welcome.  I’m roughly guiding my current search based on:

Time constraint

PAW was recorded from June 5, 1989 (except for ‘Blue Powder’) and finished sometime before Sept 1990, so any gear used must have existed in early 1990.

Videos, images, interviews, publications, internet forum discussions
  1. Gear list in the PAW tab book
  2. Steve’s website
  3. Footage from the recording of PAW
  4. Information and recordings of the Whitesnake Slip of the Tongue album and tour
  5. Early live performance of For the Love of God (which has elements of the PAW tone to my ears – in huge contrast to his recent live tones)
  6. Various interviews, Steve’s website, and forum discussions
  7. TrueFire Alien Guitar Secrets videos
  8. The Naked Tracks release of the album, which include pre-mastered mixes with the lead guitar parts muted

All of this information, of course, used with caution (people on the internet assert a lot of conflicting things, and Steve himself may have provided misinformation by mistake or on purpose).

Elements of guitar ‘tone’

The final sound on the record was ultimately a function of:

  1. How Vai played his guitars, his touch, technique (the portion of tone that ‘comes from the fingers’)
  2. Gear
  3. How the gear was setup up, what signal chains he used, how the cabinets were recorded (and in what environment) and how the engineering, compression, FX and mixing and mastering were performed.

The first is a major barrier and very important, but I won’t comment on it here.  There are internet discussions and videos on Vai’s style and technique.  His playing is, of course, impossible to perfectly imitate, but that isn’t the dimension of the ‘tone’ I’m after (for the most part).  I’m interested in how the gear and engineering of the album influenced the final sound.  No amount of changing your touch can make a Celestion Vintage 30 speaker sound like a G12M25, or a Sennheiser 421 sound like a Shure SM57.  Those details are important, and that is what I hope to emulate to about as closely as Kemper profiles sound like the real thing, or as close as UAD plugins sound like the analog gear they emulate – which could be pretty close.  I’ve never heard anyone get close enough yet, to my satisfaction.  So, my hunt for PAW tone continues…

Gear

Guitars

In the PAW tab book Vai lists Ibanez JEM 7, 77, 777 and Universe guitars.  These were first generation JEMs from the late 1980s and the Universe had just been created.  These guitars had DiMarzio PAF Pro pickups (JEM) and Blaze pickups (Universe), basswood bodies, rosewood fingerboards, one-piece maple necks.  The cheaper and newer JEM/UV Ibanez models, and anything not made in Japan, are not necessarily the best choice for emulating PAW – they have the wrong pickups, wrong wood type and wrong bridge/trem.  Vai’s famous white JEM7Vs have Evo pickups, which are hotter than the Blaze or PAF Pros.

JEM7V – Beautiful guitar, but not the best approximation of what existed in 1990

I have purchased a 1988 JEM77FP with all original parts, which should be a very close approximation of the very JEM Vai is seen playing (Ballerina 12/24) in the 25th anniversary ‘revisited’ video.  The original Edge trem is great.  This guitar has a beautiful resonance and great feel to it.

My 1988 JEM77FP

My 1988 JEM77FP

At first, I couldn’t find an affordable used 1990 Universe, so went with a UV77SVR 25th anniversary reissue.  This risks changes in manufacturing over the years together with the wrong bridge/trem, making it a less-than-ideal choice (Steve’s first 3 prototype UVs would have had the rare Edge-7, not a lopro).  Having carefully compared the sound of the new UV to the old JEM, the results are quite close, and I do not currently feel that the choice of UV is holding me back from achieving PAW tonality.

UV77SVR

Ibanez UV77SVR 25th anniversary Passion and Warfare edition – as close as I’ll get (for now) to the original three 1990 Universes Vai used on the album.

I also have a custom Strat, but don’t use that much anymore for emulating PAW, but it was used on some earlier attempts at FTLOG.

Strings

In the PAW tab book Vai lists D’Addario and Gibson strings for the Universe guitars, gauges 42 – 10 with a 53 on the low B.  With a limited selection in New Zealand, I have not matched this.  Using 42-9 Elixirs on the JEM and Ernie Ball 9s on the UV for now.

Pedals

Based on the PAW tab book gear list I’ve purchased (new):

  1. Classic Cry Baby Wah (the 95Q wasn’t introduced until 1999)
  2. MXR Distortion+ (Is this what he means by ‘MXR distortion’?)
  3. Boss Super Overdrive SD-1
  4. MXR Phase 90

In this video…

…Vai admits that the Boss DS-1 distortion was a big part of his tone for his whole career, and others on forums stress this element of his tone (‘with the tone knob never past 11 o’clock’).  He left this pedal out of the pedals list in the tab gear page, but I grabbed one (new) anyway.

I also grabbed a used Digital Whammy pedal for The Animal.

Preamplification

Vai’s tab book lists:

  1. Seven different 100W Marshall heads – modded by Jose Arrendondo
  2. Carvin X-100B
  3. Rockman stereo rack preamp
  4. ADA MP1
  5. ‘Marshall preamp’

I suspect most of his distorted tones are primarily one of the seven 100W Marshalls or the ADA MP1.  The comments on his Whitesnake slip of the tongue tour gear show images of 4 Marshall heads, used only as preamps and powered by Mesa Boogie Strategy 400 amps.  It is also mentioned that the Carvin is only used for clean tones.  This is gear he had during the recording of PAW and I take as important clues about exactly the preamp and poweramp stages of his signal chains on that album.

There are also two Soldano Rack SLO heads (with the labels changed from Soldano to something else) in the Whitesnake tour gear racks.  These are also suspiciously missing from the PAW tab book gear list.

The only amp head I can identify in the 25th anniversary video is a 1959 Marshall super lead behind him when he is playing Ballerina 12/24.

Jose Arrendondo Marshall head modifications:

I suspect that the Marshall head modifications were primarily about adding custom FX returns—Vai is a big fan of delay and other FX after preamp distortion.  I’m guessing these mods were mostly important for live performance and not radical changes to the character of the preamp stage.  More internet discussion on this here:

My preamp stage emulation explorations:

So far I’ve explored emulating his preamp distortion and tone using one of 5 DIs:

  • Kemper Profiler amp
  • Fractal Audio Axe FX II XL+
  • Focusrite Liquid Saffire 56
  • Apollo Twin Duo USB
  • SONIC CORE A16 Ultra

together with preamp software simulation in VST plugins, but mostly the Kemper lately.

My current favourite preamp emulation for PAW lead tones are ADA MP1 profiles by Mark Hall, free on rig exchange.  I suspect his lead tones were one of:

  • some pre-1990 100W Marshall head (1959 SLP, JCM800, JCM900)
  • ADA-MP1
  • Soldano Rack SLO
Power Amplification

The Whitesnake tour gear racks discussion notes that the Mesa Boogie Strategy 400 amps power the Marshalls.  He does say about the 100W marshall heads ‘sometimes it was just directly out of the heads into the cabs’.  He also mentions a Marshall 9000 series poweramp in the PAW tab book gear list.

Mesa Boogie Strategy 400 amplification:

From the manual: The main power tube used in the Strategy 400 Stereo is the MESA STR 415 type 6L6 GC which provides smooth, warm musical power and is very reliable. The 6L6 we use is extremely rugged and has very low 3rd harmonic output when overdriven. All twelve sockets should be fitted with STR 6L6’s when the Strategy is being used in any application other than live guitar. We have specially adapted 4 of the sockets– those along the rear edge– to accept either 6L6’s or STR 416 type 6CA7/EL34. This tube is characterized by more prominent harmonic output when driven hard which produces a brighter, more grinding high-end, usually preferred for guitar.

Poweramp tube emulation: when Kemper profiles or VST plugins include only preamp modelling, I’ve considered the following for added 6L6 and EL34 tube emulations to add to the signal chain prior to speaker convolution modelling:

  • Axe FX
  • Bias PEAK/AMP
  • Two Tones Wall of Sound III plugin
Cabinets and Speakers

The PAW tab book gear list simply says: “two 4×12 cabinets with 30W Celestions close miced with Sennheiser 421 and Shure SM57 mics”.  If true, it could be Vintage 30s, or possibly G12H30s.  My current investigations lead me to believe he was actually using G12M25 Greenbacks.  I gathered a very large collection of free and purchased cabinet impulses and the majority of my time chasing Vai’s tone is in the area of cabinet impulse.

Some hints as to which speakers were in the 4×12 cabinets may be found from sections of the album where guitars are heard in isolation.  The spectra for the intro to Erotic Nightmares is

It is interesting that the right channel is significantly brighter, with the high end being quite uniformly about 22% louder than the left and then some nonuniform differences below 1kHz.

This next analysis shows a strong similarity in the high end between the first three notes of For the Love of God (FTLOG) and isolated low notes on the 8th bar of the Riddle where the band briefly stops.  These spectras were intentionally smoothed more than the previous plot.  The FTLOG spectra has more structure in the high end because he is playing higher notes and the pre-cabinet distortion harmonics are less uniform.  The very low Riddle notes are nearly ideal for use in estimating the high end of the cabinet/mic profile because the distortion fills the frequency space very uniformly with a simple falloff that can be divided out of these plots.  (I used this technique to achieve the TheRiddleIntro 2017 01 04 result below)

Comparing the spectral shape of this short audio segment from the 8th bar of The Riddle:


to IRs from a large variety of cabinet/speaker/mic impulses that I’ve purchased and collected, Marshall 1960A G12M25 profiles with Sennheiser 421 microphones stand out to me as the closest fit.  The distinct cliff from 5khz to 6khz does not happen with Vintage 30 speakers (they tend to dive from 6-7khz).  I have seen a similar falloff for a small number of G12H30 profiles, but the rest of the top half of the spectra does not seem as close (the dip at 3khz is not there).  This is my main reason for suspecting that most of PAW was 25W greenbacks, not 30W Celestions.

The following plots compare the Riddle-8th-bar low note spectra (red) to some of the closest matches I found in my impulse library.  Each plot is a mixture of 4 IRs, listed at the top with the weights of each on the right, but all of those have only one profile at 0.5 weight, and the rest near 0.

High-end frequency profile of G12M25 IR to lead sounds on PAW

High-end frequency profile of G12M25 IR to lead sounds on PAW

High-end frequency profile of Classic Lead 80 IR to lead sounds on PAW

Compression

The PAW tab book gear list mentions the following outboard gear used on guitars:

  • Neve Compressor/Limiter
  • Urei Compressor/Limiters

Photos of the mothership studio (albeit significantly after 1990) show:

  • Neve 33609
  • Teletronix/Urei LA2A – late 1960s Silver
  • Dual Urei 1176s – Revision H “Silverface”
  • Dual LA3As

and I suspect these are the units he potentially used on PAW.

PAW compression emulations: my current favourite choice for getting a nice attack on high-gain lead notes is the UAD 33609 plugin with the limiter on with slow attack and a2 release.  It really seems to add energy to the guitar – love it.

I’ve had no success getting 1176 emulations to sound like PAW.  I worry about how close 1176 emulations can approach the real thing.  This HW vs SW comparison video is particularly troubling (perhaps because those plugins aren’t supposed to match a rev H?):

Delay/Chorus/FX

Delay is heavy on most guitar tones on the album.  Vai loved his Roland SDE-3000s and dedicated a page on his website to them.

Outboard FX listed in the tab book gear list:

  • 2 Eventide H-3000s
  • 2 Yamaha 1500 delays
  • TC Electronics Stereo Chorus
  • TC Electronics 2290
  • Drawmer dual gate
  • 2 Yamaha SPX90s
  • 2 Roland SDE 3000s
  • 2 Eventide 969s
Reverb

Reverb units listed in the tab book gear list:

  • Lexicon 480L (seen in the 25th anniversary video)
  • Yamaha Rev 7, Rev 1 and Rev 5
Tape

PAW was recorded on Studer 800 and 3M-79 24-track tape machines.  456 tape, probably at 30 ips (see here on the 3M).  The remaster announcement mentions 456 30 ips master tape.

Tape emulation: I’ve currently experimented with UAD Studer 800 and like the warmth it adds but it seems heavy on the low end sometimes.

Songs

Liberty

In the PAW tab book Vai mentions using a Black Universe on Liberty, with the pickup in the neck position for the lead sounds.

Live performance of Liberty shortly after the album’s release on Letterman – looks like a SD-1 or a MXR distortion+ on the floor with his wah pedal.  Small marshall amp.  I’m not tempted to draw much from that gear—the sound isn’t great and he was clearly constrained to bring a minimal setup.

Erotic Nightmares

Fantastic intro – very hard to play.  One of the few sections on PAW where distorted guitar can be heard in isolation for analysis.  I’ve looked at the high end of the spectrum over this section for clues about what cabinets and speakers Vai used on this song and the rest of the album (shown above).  I’ve also attempted a blind deconvolution of an impulse response, which was mostly a failure, but kind of interesting.  The details and results are available here.

Erotic Nightmares was apparently the first song recorded for PAW (besides Blue Powder) as a demo.

The Animal

The last song recorded for the album.  Fantastic harmonizer intro sound.  Vai mentions on the TrueFire Alien Guitar Secrets videos that the intro used the brand new Digitech Whammy pedal in the down-a-5th setting.  It is possible the Eventide H3000 played a role in that tone, but having tried both, I currently believe that it was that Digitech Whammy.  Interesting that he left that out of the TAB book gear list.

The Riddle

The Riddle was definitely recorded with a Universe, with the open low B hit on the 8th bar of the song.

First 8 bars I’ve selected this section of PAW and spent some time emulating it because it explores a lead tone that I like a lot over a wide range of pitches from reasonably high to the low B, and also because I can sort of play it.

Three of my more recent attempts can be heard here next to the target (normalized to similar volume):

These 3 attempts use the UV77SVR straight into the Kemper Profiler amp, with a preset using gate, a Plus DS distortion, into an ADA MP1 profile by Mark Hall and then into cabinet impulses and compression and FX in my DAW.  Bridge pickup position.  I’m not palm muting the low notes properly or getting the pinch harmonics right.  I’ve released a Kemper profile on rig exchange called “VaiRiddle1” that has the distortion and cabinet/speaker modeling used in the 2016 12 21 version (but I used different compression and FX in my DAW to make that mix).  I will release a new Riddle Kemper profile soon that sounds like 2017 01 31 (or, hopefully, better).

For the Love of God

For the Love of God was recorded on a white Universe that Vai later gave to Prince.  Vai typically performs the song on a six string JEM, but the original has one phrase that hits a low D and was certainly played on a seven string.

This video performed live shortly after the album’s release is probably the closest of any of his live performances that I’ve found that comes close to the album tonality.

Vai appears to be using JCM 900 heads and Marshall 4×12 cabinets, with the volume control of the JEM at 8 and the tone control at either 8 or 3 (can’t quite tell which).

Vai starts the song in the neck pickup position, plays the second verse in the bridge position, back to the neck position for the B section, and then back to neck later.  Wah is on and off throughout the song.

Summary

My current recommendations as a starting place for PAW lead tones:

  • Basswood body Ibanez guitar with Paf Pro or Blaze pickups
  • MXR Distortion+ (distortion between 10:30 and 11 oclock)
  • TJ-LJ50 High-2 Kemper profile from Top Jimi’s Lee Jackson 50 pack (cabinet and FX off)
  • RiddleIR_eugtone_MPT_g190_v73.wav from eugtone cabinet pack 1 (below)
  • Waves VEQ4 with 2-3dB boost at 15kHz
  • Narrow EQ dip at 530Hz
  • UAD Neve 33609 with limiter on, slow attack, a2 release
  • Echoboy delay and Lexicon 480L ambience
  • UAD Studer 800 tape – 456, 30ips

Previous recommendations:

  • Basswood body Ibanez guitar with Paf Pro or Blaze pickups
  • ADA MP1 Kemper profile (free from Mark Hall)
  • RedWirez Marshall 1960A G12M25 421 SpeechCone-4in impulse + EQ applied via Two Notes WOS III with EL34 tube amp ON
  • UAD Neve 33609 with limiter on, slow attack, a2 release
  • Echoboy delay and Lexicon 480L ambience
  • UAD Studer 800 tape – 456, 30ips

Free Cabinet IRs

Eugtone Cabinet pack 1: The Riddle

This cabinet impulse (IR) pack contains 350 or so .wav IRs at 44.1kHz.  These were all derived from the low notes on bar 8 of The Riddle.  They were mostly intended to work with ADA MP1 or other Kemper Profiles on rig exchange named ‘VaiRiddle’.

http://www.eugenedeon.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/TheRiddle_eugtone_IR_pack_v01.zip

Help

Please share any comments and questions or answers to my questions here or on related forums.  Appreciate it!  I will continually add to and edit this post as my search continues and opinions and conclusions change.

Also see this thread for more information and discussion.

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