Review: UnderTone Audio Vari-Cap Instrument Cable

In 2010, roc k pro ducer Eric Valentine was not only deep into a successful career producing huge records for Queens of the Stone Age, Third Eye Blind, Smash Mouth, Nickel Creek, Good Charlotte, and other popular bands, he was also deep into the development of his innovative LC Series analog mixing consoles, which he designed with his partner, engineer Larry Jasper.
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In 2010, roc k pro ducer Eric Valentine was not only deep into a successful career producing huge records for Queens of the Stone Age, Third Eye Blind, Smash Mouth, Nickel Creek, Good Charlotte, and other popular bands, he was also deep into the development of his innovative LC Series analog mixing consoles, which he designed with his partner, engineer Larry Jasper. (The pair later made these consoles available to the public through their company, UnderTone Audio.) But one afternoon that year, while tracking Slash, the gifted producer and gear designer suddenly found himself baffled by one of the simplest guitar accessories you can name—the instrument cable.

“Around that time, I was really into low-capacitance cables, because they don’t kill off the high frequencies the way ordinary guitar cables do,” says Valentine. “So, I had Slash try this ultra-low-capacitance guitar cable I had made. I was excited, because I thought it was going to make his tone even clearer and more dimensional, as it does in almost every guitar/amp situation. It didn’t. It was a disaster. When Slash plugged in that cable, it started oscillating horribly. It was a painful sound, way beyond ordinary guitar-pickup feedback.”

When the hard-rocking Guns N’ Roses veteran went back to his go-to cable—ironically, a Monster Jazz cable—the amp sounded great. Intrigued, Valentine later measured the cable’s capacitance. “That particular Monster cable is designed to have a dark, forgiving sound, so naturally it had a ton of capacitance,” says Valentine, who measured the cable at around 1,700 picofarads (pF) of capacitance. “The big thing I discovered, though, was that a high-cap cable like that doesn’t just act as a low-pass filter. It turns out that as it removes highs, it also creates this bizarre midrange bump—a bump that actually can sound good through some rigs. In fact, with Slash, that mid-bump had become a key ingredient in his tone. His hot-rodded Marshall rig pretty much required a high-cap cable.”

At this point, most producers would accept the situation and say, “Okay, Slash, just stick with the Jazz cable.” Valentine, however, is not like most producers.

Suspecting there might be a tonal “sweet spot” somewhere between the dark-sounding Monster cable and the squealing connector he had built, Valentine constructed a custom box with 100pF, 200pF, 400pF, and 800pF capacitors inside it. By plugging the low-cap cable into the box and using the box’s dial to introduce different combinations of the four capacitors within, Valentine was able to add capacitance in increments of 100pF until he found the best tone for Slash.

“If you want to hear what low capacitance can do for you,” says Valentine, “listen to the clean guitar part on ‘Gotten’ [off 2010’s Slash]. It’s one of the clearest Les Paul clean tones I’ve ever heard.”

Now convinced there really is a capacitance sweet spot between every guitar and amplifier—and that that sweet spot isn’t necessarily the one with the lowest pF reading—Valentine and Jasper created the Vari-Cap guitar cable ($99 direct). It features Valentine’s four-capacitor box with the dial on it shrunken down and installed on one end of a ten-foot wire that measures only about 13pF of capacitance per foot.

Honestly, when I stopped by Barefoot Recording, Valentine’s Hollywood studio, to hear the Vari-Cap, I wondered if my tourthrashed ears would pick up on the subtleties of the cable’s different settings. There was nothing to be nervous about—the differences were not subtle. When Valentine plugged an off-the-rack Fender Stratocaster into a ’60s Vox Cambridge combo and used the cable to notch his way from 180pF to 1,780pF of capacitance in 100pF steps, the sound grew astonishingly darker. Essentially delivering 16 different-sounding cables in one wire, the Vari-Cap is a valuable tool for anyone hunting down the perfect guitar tone.

“The differences are most striking with single-coil pickups, like on Strats and Teles,” says Valentine. “That’s because through a typical guitar speaker, single-coils deliver more of those highs in the 1kHz to 6kHz range than humbuckers do—the highs that ordinary guitar cables kill off. If you don’t have those frequencies going into your amp, they’re gone forever. Goodbye. No amount of EQ-ing later will ever bring them back.”

Kudos Huge range of tones in one cable.
Concerns Tonal variation less dramatic with humbuckers. Does not work with active pickups.
Contact undertoneaudio.com

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