Brian May is a man of simple pleasures. He likes Vox AC30 tube amp combos and treble boosters. He likes volume. And he gets results, with an electric guitar tone that is reference quality for generations of players. But even the Queen guitarist gets plagued by RF noise on occasion, and his long-time tech Pete Malandrone has revealed they are trialling a secret weapon to cut it out.
In a recent rig tour segment with The Red Special Guitar Podcast, Malandrone says they have added a rack-mounted Bettermaker mastering EQ unit to May’s rig for his upcoming dates with Queen and Adam Lambert in an afford to nix troublesome frequencies at source.
“It enhance the sound. It doesn’t change the sound. But hopefully it will help me get rid of spurious, horrible RF noise, which is the scourge of every radio system in the world because of the amount of digital stuff that is floating around the world these days,” he says.
The Bettermaker has four stereo parametric filters with 15dB of boost and cut which can be used to help cut noise out. It is also equipped a scanner that allows Malandrone to look for any noise.
Once he locates the noise, if it is outwith the guitar’s range of frequencies he can target it with the parametric EQ and adjust accordingly, taking it out of the signal. If the noise is outside of the guitar’s frequency range, 200Hz to 8kHz, it can be taken out without affecting May’s tone.
But if it is within the guitar’s frequency range then Malandrone and – and May – have a decision to make, whether to duck the frequency entirely, or incrementally, affecting the guitar's tone, or ot just leave it be.
One of the biggest problems with noise is that the conditions are always changing. No two nights will be the same. Some venues are worse than others. The problem frequencies change, and on some occasions there is no getting around it. In a worst-case scenario, Malandrone will mute May whenever he stops playing.
Malandrone says deploying the Bettermaker is “admitting defeat” but it might just be able to help them disguise noise and take an ad hoc approach to cleaning it up.
“This is a tool just to try, really,” he says. “I’d say it is a bit of an unknown quantity. But we’re going on tour with it and if he doesn’t like it we take it out. We take it out and use it as a tool when we need it.”
That signal is sent via a buffered, transformer-isolated path to May’s main rig, into the wah, then back into the rig to be split into a stereo signal. A lot of May’s gear has been custom-made by Nigel Knight, of Knight Audio Technologies (KAT) fame. He even converted May’s signature DigiTech Red Special pedal to a rack-mounted unit that is used solely for Tie Your Mother Down.
Speaking to MusicRadar in 2020, Malandrone explained how the solo required May to execute a pickup change and play slide, and using this rack-mounted version of the pedal was a neat workaround.
“When he plays the slide solo he switches to another pickup setting but he’s always struggled to pick the slide out of the strap, set the pickups right and hit the note at the start,” he said. “So I suggested putting a DigiTech in and having it on the Tie Your Mother Down solo setting. That way I could do it so he didn’t have to fiddle about with the switches on the guitar.”
You can subscribe to The Red Special Guitar Podcast on YouTube, watch Malandrone walk through May’s 2023 live rig above, and compare it with his 2020 rig here on MusicRadar. With the notable exception of the Bettermaker, not much has changed. Brian May certainly isn't changing.
As Malandrone noted in 2020, it's about making the rig work. Noise problems were part of the job.
"Absolutely, that’s my main responsibility... it’s my job to both keep it the same and make it more reliable,” he said. “He’s not going to use a Fractal rackmount, have all the gear under the stage and use in-ears, – he’s just not.
"He wants to hear three screaming AC30s behind him thumping him in the back. He wants monitors and noise everywhere, he wants excitement, and he wants it to sound like it did in 1986. Hopefully it sounds better now than it did then!”