Phish’s Trey Anastasio Debuts Revamped Guitar Rig At Madison Square Garden

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Phish’s Trey Anastasio’s guitar rig is an ever-evolving instrument unto itself. It’s a mass of circuits and techniques, vintage and new, cutting-edge and age-old, analog and digital, rack- and pedal-based, covering a wide spectrum of effects and sounds and some of the most celebrated tone-shaping tools in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

Readers who regularly follow the workings of Trey’s rig will remember that, in early December 2017, Trey and his team spent a few days at Bob Bradshaw’s Custom Audio Electronics (CAE) workshop in Rock Lititz, Pennsylvania. Bradshaw is a well-known rig maestro (he’s planning a rebuild of Warren Haynes’ rig in January 2018), and his team worked with Trey on the 1990s rig build that featured CAE’s RS-10 foot switcher as its centerpiece, in addition to building a backup rig for Trey later that decade. That RS-10-based system would remain the centerpiece of Trey’s primary touring rig for over two decades. But part of Bradshaw’s re-working of the rig in December involved replacing the RS-10 with CAE’s new state-of-the-art RST-24, a 24-channel switching system Trey can use to engage or bypass the vast array of effects at his disposal.

Ever the tinkerer, Trey continued to tweak the newly built RST-24-based rig throughout December, setting the rig up in his home and consulting with Bradshaw and his techs in the weeks before the Madison Square Garden New Year’s Run. Indeed, Bradshaw came in to consult Trey and his team on tweaks to the rig just before the December 29 show at The Garden, indicating that they continued to dial this system in even after the curtain went up on the 2017 New Year’s Run.

This latest revision of Trey’s rig — including the CAE rebuild in early December and the tweaks that have occurred since — was notable and markedly significant. A few key points will be discussed below.

First, for fans of Trey’s ‘90s tone, one of the more exciting elements of the early December rebuild was a loop in the RST-24 called “TREY 94,” which engaged a loop with a Tube Screamer set to “full scream” running in to Trey’s much-loved Ross Compressor, which squashed the howling signal down for that classic “squeezed” Trey sound from the ‘90s. But the rig at Madison Square Garden last week had that loop removed, and Trey’s “tone stack” — the pedals that control the core of his gain structure — reverted to a more familiar setup. The tone stack at MSG included one high gain Tube Screamer, one lower gain Tube Screamer, the Klon Centaur and the Ross Compressor, each in separate loops so that Trey can engage them each separately or together for maximum flexibility and control.

Next, those who have had a chance to hear any of the deeper jams from the MSG run will have noticed that Trey has access to what must be his most sophisticated delay and reverb apparatus to date, with elaborate controls that allow him to dial in precise settings on the fly. The RST-24 has a tap tempo for the Moog and one for the Eventide, plus a bypass loop for each pedal.

Trey is also using two CAE “Expanders,” each of which adds four channels to the RST-24, for a total of 32 channels. These 32 channels offer precise control over the reverbs and delays in the guitar signal chain before the signal hits the amplifiers (an Alesis Microverb, Moog MF-104M Analog Delay, an Ibanez DM-2000, and an Eventide Space) as well as the reverbs and delays in the Ambikab speaker cabinet effects loops after the amplifiers (each loop has an Eventide Space Reverb and an Eventide Time Factor Delay). The RST-24 and Expanders can control effects presets or shut these devices off entirely.

Additionally, there are two Jim Dunlop XL expression pedals that control the settings of the Eventide Time Factors: one for feedback level (number of repeats) and one for delay level (volume of repeats relative to volume of input signal). And although there are not similar foot controls for the Moog, the tilt-up pedalboard sitting atop the rack gives Trey easy hand-control access to the feedback and mix controls on that delay as well. Finally, the Eventide Space Reverb in Trey’s primary signal chain (before amplification) stands upright and faces forward so that he can tweak its presets easily by hand and there are a series of presets written down and attached below the pedal. The result is a tightly controlled array of time-based effects that maintains the integrity of the primary, non-effected signal, and can still wow the ears with beautiful, warm, haunting, wet sounds when engaged.

Listeners may also have noticed that Trey’s tone is tighter, more muscular, and even more clear and articulate than we’ve come to expect. Phish has always managed to mix well, so that each instrument occupies its own space in the EQ spectrum and stereo mix. But this phenomenon was even more pronounced than usual during this New Year’s Run, with the guitar occupying a distinct space in the overall sound spectrum without noticeable bleed-over or “mud.” This added clarity may be attributable to several aspects of the new guitar rig:

(1)Amplifier Setup: Trey was back to EL-34 tubes in the Komet Trainwreck amplifier heads, which yield a tighter, more focused, more aggressive British-style rock tone (think Jimmy Page and Angus Young) than the 6L6 tubes he has often (though not always) used in the past, including in the Fender Deluxe Reverb and Mesa/Boogie Mark III eras. The 6L6 tubes tend to produce a softer, rounder, and looser sound.

(2) Speaker Cabinets: The Komet Ambikabs — the speaker cabinets that first appeared during Summer Tour this year — are designed to reduce the clutter created by “time-based” effects like reverb and delay by giving those effects their own set of speakers separate from the non-effected tone. As a result, the guitar’s “dry” signal can truly sound dry — you don’t hear audio artifacts where Trey doesn’t want them, which makes the signal less flabby and tidier overall.

(3) Octave Eeffects: the Electro Harmonix Polyphonic Octave Generator 2 (POG 2) — arguably the Effects MVP of the year-end MSG run — is a much better pure octave effect than the Whammy II, which Trey had used for most octave effects previously. While the Whammy II is indispensable for its pitch bending capability and its harmonizer, it doesn’t track notes as well as the POG 2, leading to undesirable distortion in the low end (Trey seems to like the distortion the Whammy produces in the high end and has used it to interesting effect). The POG 2 also has an independent volume control for each octave, allowing Trey to dial in a full “mix” of octave sounds (including up to two octaves below or above the input note), plus its own built in effects. Standing in the room on December 28th, I noted that the POG 2 was rattling the chairs. It was quite something, particularly when combined with the envelope filter.

(4) The CAE Rebuild: the magic of Bradshaw’s rebuild is the secret ingredient here. The new rig has cleaner power, brand new cable runs, at least one noise gate (to quiet unwanted noise from the Boomerang Phrase Sampler), and a much more comprehensive set of controls over the effects palate that really allows each individual aspect of the signal to shine.

I hear a lot of feedback about Trey’s tone from my readers, and there’s sometimes an unspoken assumption that the sounds of the mid-1990s are the gold standard against which others might be judged. Undoubtedly, that era featured a unique and special sound. But Trey has made a substantial effort during the Phish 3.0 era (and particularly since Fare Thee Well) to work his way toward an updated and equally mesmerizing sound that encompasses a much wider tonal palette and takes advantage of the best of vintage technology as wells as the most sophisticated modern digital and analog technology available to today’s players. The result Trey and his team produced for the MSG New Year’s Eve run this year was a sound that may well come to be just as storied and revered as those legendary sounds of yore.

For a complete rundown of the 2017 MSG New Year’s Rig, check out Trey’s Guitar Rig.

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