SR&D - Commitment to great guitar sound

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1989. From a technical point of view, SR&D had materialized all the concepts that Tom Scholz had developed over the years. The basis schematics have not really evolved since, and time had come to develop and optimize more than create gear. That's what SR&D has done during the next period, from 1989 to 1991.

The Rockman Sustainor was designed as an all-in-one amp simulator, featuring in a compact size the basic bricks of guitar tone: compression, filtering, saturation and noise control with the Smart Gate. The Guitar Compressor and the Smart Gate, created in 1989, were designed in the same mood as the Distortion Generator, created in 1987: extracts from the Sustainor with additional controls. The objective was to answer market's expectations, with general application effects, at a lower cost.

The Distortion Generator is one of the most amazing creations by SR&D. The DG is basically an improved version of the Sustainor's saturation channel. Functionnally speaking, it seems to be great too, with its built-in 3 bands pre-distortion EQ. But the Sustainor has two assets missing on the DG: the Smart Gate and the pre-distortion loop.

This can be corrected: Perfect Sound Rock Refurbs had already proposed the FX Loop modification, thus allowing using a Rockman Instrument EQ instead of the limited 3-bands EQ.

I have myself designed a Smart Gate module for the DG, that makes the DG sound at its best: more gain and harmonics than the Sustainor, without the noise that was a little annoying as for now. The DG sounds creamier, with a plain distortion sound that can be tweaked and sculpted at will with two EQ's.

The Guitar Compressor is actually the only high-end compressor designed exclusively for the guitar player. The other compressors are cheap stompboxes, pumping and breathing like hell, that mess up the musicality of the guitar instead of enhancing it. Should someone need something more professional, he (or she) has to get into studio compressors, not really efficient for a guitar. I had actually given up using compressors for years: the GC brought me back to the pleasure of a plain, stable compressed sound that respects both my guitar and my amp.

While the DG can be assimilated to the saturation channel of the Sustainor, the Guitar Compressor is similar to the clean channel: the built-in treble booster can be set in the CLN2 position.

The GC has also this magic feature that is available only in the modified "Double-IC" Sustainors: the Lead-Leveller function, designed for fast players who need a short compressor release time.

The Smart Gate became a reference in the noise-reduction domain. The principle of the Smart Gate is really different from basic noise-gates, that just cut the end of the notes when noise is getting too loud.

The Smart Gate never cuts the notes: it closes gently a filter while the note decays, thus leaving long sustain last till the final millisecond. This feature existed already in the specific built-in version of the Sustainor: the rack version is an extended device that allows total control over the noise in a rig, without altering the sound of the guitar.

Dunlop Manufacturing Inc. has adapted the circuit designed by Tom Scholz and released two updated Smart Gates: a stompbox version is available from MXR, and Dunlop's Custom Shop sells double Smart Gates in a 19' rack format.

1990. SR&D has raised the standard of guitar analog gear at its best. Yet, digital is getting more affordable for the end-consumer, and the huge possibilities of this technology makes it a serious competitor to the conventional gear. The tonal result can be discussed: it's usually admitted that analog devices have a sound of their own, and digital gear can only copy what analog has always done. But the capacity to store different sounds and to recall them at will was a clear advantage of the digital approach.

The answer of SR&D to this new era was, in 1990, the XP Series. The XPR is an analog 1U rack that contains all the main functions of a classic Rockman rig, and the XPR is programmable! A sort of "perfect" and "definitive" multieffect ? Almost. Making the XPR perfect would have been a serious marketing mistake, that would have killed the job. The XPR, and the matching derived products, has everything to make a Rockman player happy:

  • Midi Interface to handle 100 user presets
  • Built-in compressor
  • Two channels programmable preamp
  • Pre and post distortion programmable EQ's
  • Programmable Stereo Chorus
  • Programmable Stereo Echo/Reverb

The XPR can thus replace a 6 modules Rockman rig, its only weakness being the Echo/Reverb unit that cannot compete with the half-rack Stereo Echo. All in all, the XPR is probably the most comprehensive tool that SR&D has produced. But less than 3000 XPR, to include the programmable amps (XP100, XP212, Superhead 100) and the rare professional version, the XPRa, were produced between 1990 and 1994: this makes the XPR hard to find, much harder than the classic modules.

The apogee of SR&D corresponds to the PGE2: Dual Channel Programmable Graphic Equalizer. Two analog 14 bands EQ's, made programmable and controled via Midi.

99 PGE2 only were actually produced, in 1991, and this 19' studio rack is clearly the most desirable SR&D unit. The technical characteristics of the PGE are close to perfection, and the smart interface merged with the know-how of SR&D in the analog domain makes it a unique, extremely powerful tool.

The PGE2 was not the result of a design-to-cost effort: it was a genuine "design-to-Scholz" item, and the cost of the PGE2 was too high to allow a decent tag price. The PGE2 was therefore discontinued right after the first 99 items batch was sold.

The most recent stage pictures show a PGE2 in every Boston head or so. It is thus not surprising that Tom Scholz buys them back when he can: as of Rockman-Central, the PGE2 is "very difficult to find one for sale at any price. Even Scholz is looking for them."

The design of the XPR and of the PGE2 show the dilemma encountered by SR&D in the beginning of the nineties. The competition with digital gear obliged to create costly and complex programmable rack units. Two solutions were available: set some limits to the product, as in the XPR case, or switch to first-class items such as the PGE2, with little chance to find a large market for them.

This dilemma was the beginning of the end for SR&D's adventure, as the hesitations during the last years will show.

Copyright 2007