An Ode to the Tech 21 Paul Landers Fly Rig PL1
We bullied this Box for Months to See If It Could Stand Up to Your Gig Needs
We Also Wanted to See If a Signature Device from the Rammstein Guitarist is a Tool for Almost Everyone or an Extremely Niche Product
“That’s a shit ton of saturation, man,” giggled one of the band mates in my Monkees tribute act as I clicked to the Feuer (Fire) channel of the Tech 21 Paul Landers Fly Rig PL1.
Ya think? The Feuer’s distortion sound is intense, ferocious, and grandiose—just like Landers’ uber-popular Neue Deutsche Härte (“New German Hardness”) band, Rammstein. I turned the channel’s Drive setting way down to what I’d assume was the “meek” setting, and the rage was not tamed all that much.
I anticipated the next comment: “Do you think that thing will work in a band that covers Monkees tunes?”
Good Question. Can the PL1 Rock the Music of the Monkees?
There was no comeback. Tech 21 currently produces five Fly Rigs, and any one of them except the Paul Landers—including the Acoustic Fly Rig and even the Bass Fly Rig—seems like a better match for a guitarist performing ’60s pop rock. After all, Rammstein concerts are gargantuan spectacles, and Landers’ guitar sound absolutely measures up to the brutish, epic theater of his band.
That said, the PL1 has an option that’s perfect for any style of music. Rammstein isn’t all about fierce onslaughts of militaristic distortion. Landers also utilizes clean sounds that are exceedingly pretty, and, for these tones, the PL1 includes a Wasser (water) channel that is as sweet as Feuer is menacing.
Considering I wouldn’t last one song if I joined Rammstein onstage as a guest guitarist—my inherent San Francisco hippie flower-power wimpiness would likely induce the crowd to swallow me up like a pack of starved piranhas—the PL1’s dual personality (and savvy tone adjustments) makes it something that not only works for Landers (duh), but also something that could work for me.
Let’s hold that thought for a second, though. Throughout the many years of my journalism and music careers, I’ve been consistently intrigued by VOGs (Very Opinionated Guitarists) who will declare that this is better than that, or to do this you need that, or you’ll never get a decent tone if you do that or use this. You know, stuff like “Why did you buy an ESP James Hetfield Signature Snakebyte when you play funk?” or “A Roland Blues Cube ain’t the best amp for playing prog metal, dude,” or “Digital models are the antichrist—tubes rule.”
In the arena of judgmental musical beliefs, a Monkees-loving, classic-rock-raised, ’60s-tribute-band performing cat such as myself might be labeled a fool for plugging into anything to do with Rammstein to play “I’m a Believer” or “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”
My only defense is: “Why would you celebrate the joyous anarchy of rock music by fearing chaos, mayhem, rebellion, and experimentation?”
I’m definitely one of those musicians who is uncomfortable with comfort zones, and I don’t subscribe to any rock-and-roll rulebooks that decree what style-appropriate gear you should use to sound appropriately stylistically awesome. In fact, I firmly believe that using the so-called “wrong” gear can fuel imagination, creativity, and innovation.
So—damn the torpedoes—I plugged into the PL1, and here’s what happened…
That Feuer Channel
The Fire channel is not for the weak of heart. In fact, it’s kind of like a Rhodesian Ridgeback dog. Show it any lack of grit, and it will own your ass. In addition to warning you never to lose a game of tug-of-war with a Ridgeback, I can also suggest that before unleashing the ferocious distortion of the Feuer channel you may want to wear body armor.
When using the PL1 as your sole tone machine—plugged into a studio console or routed directly to the front-of-house mixer at a venue—the Feuer channel is an excellent choice for massive riffs and solos that rage and sustain for days. I couldn’t get a satisfactory classic-rock rhythm tone out of it, but to be fair, it wasn’t designed for that task.
I did use Feuer for some home-studio song demos that had nothing to do with my ’60s Monkees tribute. I plugged the PL1 direct into a Focusrite 2i2 preamp routed to Apple GarageBand, and recording went along fabulously after some gain-stage tweaking. (Given its basic roar and available EQ and level controls, Feuer can pin recording levels to the red pretty quickly if you space out during tracking.) There’s audible hiss at the higher gain settings—and I also noticed some added fizzle when using guitars equipped with single-coil pickups—but GarageBand’s noise gate fixed any audio gremlins that interfered with the sound quality.
However you set the Feuer controls, you are pretty much committed to the vast realm of metal sounds. I still didn’t go for it as a main rhythm-guitar tone, but I did use this channel for textures under the main (cleaner, overdriven) rhythm tracks. For solos, I enjoyed blasting off into the sonic stratosphere of super-saturated sustain—which Feuer delivers in abundance. Fun!
But studio sessions were not the main reason I wanted to check out this Fly Rig. For live shows, I wanted to cut down on the cartage to small venues. My usual pedalboard isn’t huge, but it’s large enough to get in the way of the other musicians on cramped stages. As the PL1 appeared to provide what I need to do the tribute show, I felt its teeny tiny footprint would be appreciated by my band mates who were tired of tripping over—or avoiding—my pedalboard during the heat of performance.
Fire in the Hole
For the most part, all I need for short live sets is a clean boost. I get everything I want for a rhythm sound from my Vox AC30, but I like hitting a pedal to crank up the volume for solos and signature riffs. (David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick once showed me how to get awesome rhythm and lead sounds from an AC30 using just the volume knob on a guitar, but I’m hopeless at manipulating my guitar controls quickly and accurately.) I plugged the PL1 into the AC30, and thought, “Cool. All I need is the tuner and the boost function, and I am rocking.” But when I hit Boost, it didn’t smack into the AC30’s front end with enough oomph to drive my solos over the band mix. I cranked the boost level and clicked the Punch button, but the volume increase still fell short of my needs.
Given the band’s comments during my initial introduction of the Feuer channel, I wasn’t confident stomping into “Fire Mode” would work, either, but I gave it the old college try. (“Hey, maybe it will sound like a crazy fuzz pedal, and I could fly the psychedelia flag.”) But no matter how I adjusted the gain stages, the onslaught hit the front of the AC30 pretty hard, and the resulting sound was too hellaciously savage for conventional ’60s-rock rhythms and solos. As with the studio tests, I liked the sound, but I was uncomfortable wielding it for, say, the intro lick of “Saturday’s Child” [Monkees, 1966].
Happily, the PL1 had one more option at hand…
All Hail the Wasser Channel
Water being the stuff of life and all, the Wasser (“water” in English) channel saved my butt for soloing at gigs. Boost and Feuer didn’t work for the reasons I previously detailed, but I found I could use Wasser as a kind of “super boost” that really knocked my solos and riffs over the band mix. You see, this clean channel has dedicated signal level, EQ, and compression controls that I could tweak to hit the AC30 hard enough—but not too hard—to deliver a delicious, nicely overdriven, ’60s-appropriate roar to ensure my solos exploded into the audience. Another benefit I discovered was that, unlike the uber-saturation of the Feuer channel, the dynamic range available via the Wasser-and-AC30 setup let me exploit the differences in subtle and hammer-handed pick attacks. Victory!
Furthermore, I also had the reverb and delay features readily available to add some juicy bits to the sound. There is vibrato onboard, as well, but I hardly ever use that effect. It sounds super nice, but I opted to go with delay, as the PL1 lets you choose one or the other effect. Reverb is always on tap.
Lastly, as much as you might try to dial things in before soundcheck, you tend to discover little sonic anomalies once you get everything set up on stage, and things may change again when the audience is in the house. The PL1, once again, makes quick tweaks easy, as switches let you tailor your sound to the whims of a particular room, a monitor system, and/or the ears of a mixing engineer. Feuer gives you a Mid Shift button, Wasser offers Bite, and Boost provides Punch. One button push usually made me more comfortable with what I was hearing onstage, and if it didn’t, the EQ controls are enough to get the job done.
In the recording studio, Wasser produces a clean sound that isn’t too sterile, or lacks that all-important vibe quality. I’d be more than happy plugging in the PL1, saying “Thanks but no thanks” to the studio’s supply of house amps, and going with the tone direct from the PL1. It’s a thoroughly excellent sound.
In fact, if you’re in a studio—or playing at a venue that provides a backline—and you’re not digging the amplifier you’re plugging into, I’d recommend using the Wasser channel of the PL1 in front of the supplied amp to bring the magic to a boring sound. Like a good studio preamp, the PL1 can beautifully enhance the sound of just about whatever amp you plug into—even those amps that are near perfect all by their lonesome selves (a bit of PL1 compression and its added EQ controls can do wonders to any cool amp, right?).
Check Out Our Audio Test
Other Cool Stuff
None of these features are earth-shattering, but it’s terrific that Tech 21 fits them in a compact chassis that measures close to a jumbo-sized chocolate bar. You get an onboard tuner and a tap-tempo button, as well as a switch that brings the ¼” output to headphone mode. Sound crews and studio engineers will love the flexibility of having both a ¼” jack and an XLR output (with ground lift). All of the knobs and buttons are locked-down for combat, and the footswitches are road tough (and offer silent switching).
The Ravages of Time
During the four months I used the PL1, I rudely tossed it into gig bags, car trunks, and road cases. More than once, it fell from a five-foot-high storage perch in my garage to a concrete floor. I must admit I abused this device so viciously that Paul Landers himself might one day come looking for me to kick my ass for disrespecting his signature gear. It never failed. Nothing broke. No knob ever detached itself from the front panel, or suffered divots, dents, or other breakage. Heck, even the side panels stayed put. (I was reminded here of a many-years-ago test where I kicked a DigiTech multi-effects device off a stage, and the two side panels came off and shot ten feet in each direction. Oops.) I’m sure that this thing can and will break under extreme misuse. But I wasn’t able to bring it to its knees. Ever.
A Cautionary Tale that Could Have Been Avoided Were I a Smarter Human
I definitely missed the PL1 on a sun-blasted gig in 100+ degree heat at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in July. I had made what turned out to be a bad decision, and I brought a digital multi-effects pedalboard, thinking that I might need a bit more processing firepower for such a big show. After a soundcheck and three songs in the withering heat and direct sunlight, the digital device flipped out and started pushing up daisies. The screen reverted to program mode and nothing worked except the tuner. I was screwed. No signal boost. No soaring lead tones. No delay. And no backup. I had to crank up the amp and do what I hate and fear the most—control my rhythm and lead volumes with the knobs on my guitar.
The experience led me to attempt a replay of the dead digital device. I left the PL1 (which is all analog) in direct sunlight for three hours during a day that reached about 90 degrees. I carefully plugged my guitar in the PL1—as the all-metal housing was far too hot to touch without yelping—and everything worked just fine. If only I had been sharp enough to do a heat/sunlight test to compare the PL1 and the other processor before the Garlic Festival. Lesson learned. Sigh.
So What’s Up with that Rammstein/Monkees Dilemma?
Even though I’m in a tribute act that rocks up the Monkees hits with overdriven guitars, you can only modernize those tunes so much without pissing off an audience that wants to sing along with what they remember on the original recordings. Now, if Paul Landers waltzed into a Monkees recording session in 1967 with his Fly Rig set on Feuer, I’m fairly certain he would have freaked the living hell out of everyone from Hal Blaine to Louie Shelton, and caused producers Boyce and Hart to rapidly usher his barbarous guitar sounds into the hallway and out into the parking lot. Thank you and goodbye.
But the PL1 proved that, although I would never want to see the 1966-era cutesy Monkees open for the brilliantly extreme theatrics and overpowering musical onslaught of Rammstein in a Berlin stadium, the Paul Landers Fly Rig can coexist with ’60s material if deployed with sensitivity and a practical approach to tone construction. Or, heck, just go crazy and reinvent ’60s guitarcraft as if you traveled back to 1967 London a lá Back to the Future. I ain’t gonna tell ya what to do!
Watch the Official Tech 21 Video for the PL1
My Favorite Things
Being able to rock the PL1 throughout a significant number of shows, studio sessions, and rehearsals was great, as it allowed me to hone in on the elements that really helped me do my job in the gigging part of my life. Here are the bits I liked the most…
Super-Portable Spare Rig. This works with any Fly Rig, of course. I always worry about an amp going down at an important gig. It has never happened to me, but I’ve seen it happen to others, and it is a situation that can spike your blood pressure near head-exploding levels. So I always pack something like an Orange Tiny Terror and a 1×12 cabinet in addition to my AC30. That relatively compact spare rig isn’t much of a chore to tote around, but it does take up valuable room in my little Mazda CX-3, and I also have to store it somewhere at the venue, as leaving gear unattended in one’s car is like asking the Gig Gods to vaporize you with a thunderbolt. The PL1 and its power cable fits in the storage pocket of one of my guitar’s gig bags, and I can put it onstage to the side of my amp (along with an XLR cable) without taking up much space at all. If my AC30 ever gives up the ghost mid-gig, I can simply plug in the PL1 to the stage snake and continue rocking in less than a minute or two. I’ve stopped worrying about amp failure, and I can leave the extra rig at home.
Crap Amp Protection. Former Guitar Player editors such as Jude Gold and Matt Blackett are such outstanding technicians that they can launch amazing guitar solos using the zippers on their coats. Me—not so much. If the amp tone isn’t inspiring to me, I’m done. In the past, I’d always have my fave amp with me, so this wasn’t a concern. These days, however, club gigs often mean sharing backlines, and you never know whether you’ll be plugging into something awesome or an abomination. The PL1 is “abomination insurance.”
Coloration Boosts. I love clean boosts, because the natural tone of an AC30 pushed into overdrive is a marvelous sound to my ears. But I’m getting way into boosts with added tonal coloration, as you can better tailor your lead sounds to the room, the band mix, and whatever personality you might be rocking that day. The PL1’s Wasser channel serves as an outstanding coloration boost. My fave setting is Level at 3 o’clock, High at noon, Low at 1 o’clock, and Comp at noon. I also add just a touch of Ambiance (9 o’clock). Depending on how I’m hearing things at any given moment, I might also depress the Bite switch.
So Small, So Many Tonal Options. Fly Rigs are almost like having an amp and a rack of gear blasted by a shrink ray. I appreciate the sound-sculpting features Tech 21 puts into these petite pedals, and, in the case of the PL1, I never ran into a situation where I said, “Shoot. If only I had more EQ, more effects, more amp models, or maybe a Nespresso machine, I could really rock this tune.” Nope. I always had everything I needed. But then again, I don’t play in an ’80s metal or new wave band.
No Compromise Sound. I first tested the original SansAmp in 1990, right when I started at Electronic Musician magazine as an assistant editor. I also owned a San Francisco recording studio at the time—Sound & Vision—and I was anxious to see if this little box could replace full-stacks, half-stacks, combos, microphones, and mic placement. Well, the SansAmp couldn’t beat every “direct or miked” test we launched, but it won enough of them that the future was beamed as clear as a THX Ultimate Cinema film. I didn’t quite see the days when big commercial recording studios would be using software loaded onto laptops to track guitar sounds for world-wide hits, but I knew that reality was forever warped, and I embraced the technology. Tech 21—as well as many other manufacturers—has moved the needle astronomically further out since the early days of analog/digital modeling, and the company continues to produce one of the most organic and realistic modeled-amp sounds out there. No complaints here about the PL1’s clean and distorted sounds.
Astounding Discoveries. To be honest, if I hadn’t been sent the PL1 to review, I would have never done a deep dive on Paul Landers and Rammstein. I’m so glad I did. True, I’d never start or join a Rammstein-type band—that style simply isn’t in my wheelhouse—but the group’s cinematic dynamics, its ability to shift between light and dark textures while still keeping a massive groove pounding, and the sensational creativity and staging of its stage show taught me so many things that I can translate into my own work. Rammstein does so much so magnificently that I’m still trying to absorb it all. I can’t believe I would have cheated myself out of so many teaching moments if I hadn’t had the PL1 underfoot. In fact, the whole experience turned me into a voracious YouTube and music-trend explorer, because I don’t want to miss anything else ever again.
A Little Taste of Rammstein in Concert.
Some Thoughts on the GoG Review Process
One of the things I’m loving at Guardians of Guitar that I couldn’t usually do at Guitar Player is test a product over a three- to six-month timespan.
The magazine wasn’t to blame here. It really wasn’t anyone’s fault.
When a manufacturer releases a new product, they quite rightly want the gear reviewed while it’s still new—especially if it’s an exciting technological leap or a unique take on time-honored feature sets. They certainly want to take advantage of their scheduled marketing campaigns, as well as fight it out for print and digital media in an increasingly crowded marketplace. They know reviewers can’t address every product that’s released each year, so it’s important to make the most of what you can get, and to get that coverage as soon after the product’s release date as possible.
The downside of this very typical method of evaluation is what we all sometimes hear from our peers—that a piece of gear started out rocking heavily, but little bits of not-so-awesome started appearing after weeks and months of use. It happens. Although, to be fair, most products these days are truly manufactured to last.
Now, the reviewers I’ve worked with over the years at various publications are all talented, fair, comprehensive, honest, and experienced. But, as excellent as they are at what they do, none of them have yet developed the facility to see into the future. General wear-and-tear, cagey software glitches, design malfunctions, power problems, and lots of other such gremlins do not often reveal themselves during the one week (if that) these products are under the microscope.
So I want to thank the manufacturers—in this case, Tech 21—who are allowing me to knock around with their gear for upwards of two months and beyond.
It’s not an optimum situation for them to wait so long for a Guardians of Guitar review. In fact, it probably helps me more than them, as I’m able to find a little niche for GoG reviews that many brands aren’t populating—the over-time product evaluation.
Hopefully, after all of the other media outlets have done their thing in a timely manner, these manufacturers will find decent value in reviews that were crafted through weeks of real-world use and abuse in the gigging world. It’s my wish that readers will find value in these pieces, as well, because I’m using this stuff in much the same ways they are, and I’m hoping I stumble upon much the same kudos and complaints during the process.
In other words, you won’t get a lot of “What’s New” at GoG, and we’ll never beat the very brilliant media competition (who are all buddies I respect, of course) at gear scoops or “first looks.” What we can do is torture the heck out of these products for a darn good stretch to ensure they are not only awesome tools for you to spend your money on, but also plausibly reliable for the long haul.