Titlow Park – Tacoma, Washington

Titlow Park, Puget Sound

Titlow Park, Puget Sound

Last weekend I drove the 30 minutes from my house up to Tacoma and Titlow Park. I’d never been there and didn’t know what I’d find.  It’s a fun challenge for me to go to a new place like this and look for good compositions.  The particular spot in the photo above is signed “Hidden Beach”.

Puget Sound, Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Puget Sound, Tacoma Narrows Bridge

This shot of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge looked better in black and white, with tasteful contrast and “structure” adjustments in NIK Silver Efex Pro 2 to bring out the textures and tones, rather than the colors.  It’s hard to tell this was almost sunset, but the original color version doesn’t show off the massive concrete slabs, choppy water, and distant, towering bridge.  The blue sky and water dominated everything, and caused these other elements to blend in.  So a black and white conversion was a way to bring them out.

Titlow Park, Puget Sound

Titlow Park, Puget Sound

I’ve had my EOS 6D for half a year now, but I am still amazed how much detail can be pulled out of black shadows from its RAW files.  I have had to change the way I expose my shots. I used to try to find the best balance between highlights and shadows.  If the shadows were black and the highlights blown, I’d have to give up on the shot.  Now I adjust my exposure to make sure I don’t have any major highlight blowouts, and worry about the shadows in post processing, because I can usually get quite a bit of detail out of very dark shadows.  These shots taken just before sunset are a perfect illustration of this.

Titlow Park Forest Trail

Titlow Park Forest Trail

I should admit I took some artistic license and enhanced some of these shots beyond what is completely natural.  Our eyes see scenes like this much better than a camera does, so another challenge is to bring the image back to the level of detail and tones that our eyes can see, or as close as possible.  I used four different adjustment filters in NIK Color Efex Pro 4 to get this result.  The original image had heavy, black shadows and muted colors without any editing.

Titlow Beach, Puget Sound

Titlow Beach, Puget Sound

Here’s a perfect example.  The sand behind this stump was black as a silhouette, as was the stump itself.  But amazingly there was detail there, and I used a combination of Lightroom’s “Shadows” adjustment and NIK Color Efex Pro 4’s “Pro Contrast” to get it back.

All of these shots were taken with the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L lens on the EOS 6D.  I’ve had the lens for 10 years, but it’s like having a new lens when I switched to a full-frame body.  I can get much wider angles and perspectives.  It brings a whole new meaning to “foreground interest”!

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NIK Analog Efex Pro 2 – Wet Plate effect

Sailboat - Photo plate effect

Sailboat – Photo plate effect

I shot this photo with the Canon EOS 7D in May 2013 from a ferry heading to Seattle.  I never did anything with it because I didn’t see anything eye catching about the photo.  Nothing wrong with the composition or image quality, it just didn’t catch my eye.  So after running it through NIK Software’s Analog Efex Pro 2, does it have more to offer?  Well, the “wet plate” effect adds some detail to the sky and the old sepia film effect helps create a vintage look.

Lighthouse - Wet plate effect

Lighthouse – Wet plate effect

I did a similar edit on this photo of the West Point Lighthouse near Seattle.  It was taken in September 2014 with the EOS 6D and EF 35mm f/2 IS. It just wasn’t that great as a straight travel photo.  But the vintage look adds something that I really like.

Analog Efex Pro has a lot of effects that can make photos look older, or like they were taken with old film cameras. Lens distortion and vignette, dust and scratches, film types, light leaks, motion blur and bokeh, the list goes on.  Since I spend so much time (and money) trying to get excellent image quality, a piece of software like this is hard for me to use.  Almost everything degrades image quality in some way.  I zero out the grain settings on the film types and don’t use dust and scratches… What I did here was simply apply the plate effect and balance the film type adjustments with the basic adjustments. Sometimes after I apply a film effect, I want to go back and re-adjust contrast or brightness, because of what the film effect has done to my original adjustments.

What I love about NIK’s software editing tools is that many different types of photographers can use them according to their own tastes.  They’re very flexible and user friendly.  You just need the patience to try different things and learn what you like.

Yamaha THR 10 & THR 10C

Yamaha THR 10

Yamaha THR 10

A couple years ago I sold my Fender Princeton Chorus guitar amp and purchased a Yamaha THR-10.  These are not even the same type of product, so why the switch?  Well, I’m a hobbyist and I don’t play my amp in medium to large venues. When I play for my church, I use an acoustic into a mic or DI.  I never played the 120 watt Fender combo much at home because level 3 on the volume knob was already too loud.  And my jumbo acoustic produces plenty of volume for small to medium rooms with no amplification and sounds way better without being plugged in.
But I am starting to get into playing electric guitar, and they don’t sound very good unplugged. I wanted more variety in my guitar tones but still wanted a high level of quality in the tone.  The Yamaha THR had several things that appealed to me:
1. High sound quality: Co-developed by Yamaha Hi-Fi and Yamaha Musical Instruments. The guitar amp models are very accurate, organic and real sounding, and they do respond to your playing dynamics. This is a modeling amp, not a real amp, and modeling amps can have trouble getting this right.
2. Full range speakers: Dedicated guitar amps have great mid-range sound, because that’s where most of an electric guitar pickup’s tone is. But try plugging your mobile device into a regular guitar amp and playing an mp3 song. It sounds muffled, boomy, and generally lacking in definition. But the THR sounds great with pre-recorded music and acoustic guitars alike.
3. Acoustic setting: I could play both my acoustic and electric guitars through the amp. I’ll say the acoustic setting is decent with a piezo pickup-equipped acoustic plugged in. Much better with the James Tyler Variax guitar set to an acoustic model. Line 6 has done an amazing job modeling a miced acoustic.
4. Small, portable size: I’m not crazy about it being only 10 watts, and would have preferred 30 to 50 watts. But I have to admit I have the volume around the halfway point most of the time, and it can get loud enough to hurt your ears at close range. The form factor makes it easy to set on a desktop and tweak comfortably from a chair. I can put the power adapter and guitar cable in my gig bag or case, and the slick handle on the THR makes it easy to carry.
5. Recording interface: The THR can connect to the computer via a USB cable, which allows you to do several things.
  • You can record straight into recording software with no DA/AD conversions.
  • You can send music from your computer to the THR through USB and control the “Guitar” and “USB” volumes separately.
  • While sending your guitar signal into a DAW, you can use processing plug-ins on the guitar tone, and hear the result through the headphone jack on the THR.
  • Also, you can use the THR editor software to get more in-depth editing functions for your saved presets on the amp itself, or download and install presets others have created.
There is one quirky thing with the sound projection. When the speakers are aimed directly at you, there is a unbelievably wide stereo field from such small speakers so close together. I honestly don’t know how they did that, but it sounds awesome when you sit in front of it. But when I play standing up, with the THR on the floor, in a small hall that has some echo, it sounds muffled to me, and I have a hard time detecting what my playing dynamics are doing when playing with other instruments. I probably need to put it a few feet behind me on a tall stand so that the sound passes my head on the way to the audience. Granted, this was made to be a practice amp for the living room, and it isn’t geared for performance. But the sound is so good and volume acceptable for playing for small groups, so I use it that way sometimes.
A novelty feature that in no way affects performance is the orange glow meant to imitate the glow of tubes in a real tube amp.  It slowly brightens when you turn the amp on, just like a tube warming up.  It’s kind of cool and that’s why I shot these photos the way I did.
The THR is a modeling amp with built in effects like reverb and chorus, all of which sound very high quality. So how does it compare to software amp simulator and effect plug-ins? I’m probably not the guy to make an objective judgment, just because of my lack of experience and low skill level, but I did try out trial versions of several popular guitar amp sim/effect plug-ins (I don’t want to name names). After hours of tweaking software-based amp sims, when I switch over to the built-in THR processing, it always sounded more organic and real. Only 5 amp models, but they sound amazing. Yamaha really took the time to get it right.
Yamaha THR 10C

Yamaha THR 10C

Then a few weeks ago I learned that Yamaha had released the THR-10C (and THR-10X) not long after I purchased the THR-10.  The THR-10 has a wide range of tones from clean to screaming distortion. Because I play mostly clean and crunch tones, I only used 2 of the 5 electric amp models 90% of the time.  When I found that the THR-10C had all cleaner, tube amp models, I put my 10 up for sale and purchased a 10C.  I like it much better because I find all 5 models on the 10C useful. I can still get screaming distortion if I crank the gain higher, but there is a whole range of clean and semi-clean tones on each model that have a very expressive and rich sound. I love it!  I have a PRS SE Soapbar Singlecut with P90 pickups which sounds awesome through the THR-10C, and I just got a Line 6 JTV-59 Variax guitar which can put out an astounding range of tonal variation. Modeling guitar, meet modeling amp!
So “THR” is a sort of acronym for “third” amp.  Yamaha reps say that most players have a big stack for gigging, a small combo for practice or smaller venues, and this was made to be a home-friendly practice amp with extra features.  It really is true you can get screaming distortion without disturbing sleeping children down the hall, but at that point I just plug in headphones. I guess I’m not the typical target market.  I don’t have bigger amps because I’m not a gigging musician, but rather a hobbyist who plays at home and records music on the computer. The THR is my ONLY amp right now.
Yamaha THR 10C - Models

Yamaha THR 10C – Models

Yamaha made up their own names for the amp models, but these are based on real amps. Obviously, some of the amps they modeled don’t all have the same knobs, so they’ve taken some artistic license.  They are proud of the fact that they have modeled at the individual component level (tubes, circuits, transistors, etc.), rather than just modeling the sound. So the amp models respond to tweaking and playing just like real amps.

Yamaha THR 10C - Effects & Output

Yamaha THR 10C – Effects & Output

My favorite two effects are the hall reverb and the chorus. They sound very high quality, and all these effects can be edited more in-depth using the computer software. Unlike some products I’ve come across, everything about the THR says “quality”, from the construction to the sound.

So what about modeling amps and guitars?  So far I think the models don’t always sound exactly like the real thing, but when the sound and tonal quality is this high, I don’t really care.  Some people may be fooled in a blindfold test, others might not. If I find the sound useful and pleasing, it doesn’t have to sound exactly like the real gear it’s imitating.
Thanks to Yamaha for a genius product, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next for guitar players.