At my church gig yesterday, I chose a set that guaranteed that I’d get to play LOTS of guitar. Normally, I have to split my time between piano and guitar, especially when we don’t have a drummer or bass. Thus, for the past few weeks, since either our drummer or bassist has been out of town, I’ve only been bringing an acoustic guitar, and playing it for only a couple of tunes.
However, yesterday was different. Not only did we have a bassist, we had a guest drummer, which meant that I could stay on guitar most of the time since we also had another rhythm guitar.
I debated with myself on what amp/guitar combo I’d bring. Normally it would be my DV Mark Little 40 which is VERY versatile, but after looking at the set list, I figured I needed a bright, vintage Marshall sound. So I took my trusty Aracom VRX22 off the shelf, packed up my rig in my car, and set off to church.
Once I had everything set up, I strummed a power chord and was greeted with a sound that only a Les Paul Standard and a Marshall amp (or Marshall-style in my case), can make. There’s a high-Mid emphasis with a gorgeous, open overdrive. It’s a sound I’ve come to love over the years, and it immediately tells me it’s “rock and roll.”
My particular VRX22 has been modded a bit by Jeff Aragaki with a channel switch, and he also slightly upped the voltage to my vintage circa-1959 6V6′s, plus adjusted the drive channel to have a bit more output. So when I crank the amp, it sounds A LOT bigger than its 22 Watts would lead to you to believe. :)
But thinking back on the set, no other amp would’ve done – even my DV Mark Little 40. The music demanded a Marshall-esque sound. While my DV Mark can get close, there’s a certain inexplicable quality that I was after that would be difficult to capture with another amp.
That said, when I’m doing a mixed-bag set, I go for versatility, and the DV Mark is perfectly suited for that. But for a specific sound, I’ll go to the source: Either a Fender or a Marshall. Sometimes nothing else will do…
I make no secret about the fact that I play Aracom Amps. I’ve played TONS of different amps, and though many tickle my fancy, I’d consider buying a very select few; actually there are only two other amps that I want besides another Aracom, and that is an original Fender ProSonic and a DV Mark Little 40.
At this point in time, I have three Aracom amps: The PLX18-BB w/Trem, VRX18, and the VRX22. The PLX18 is Jeff Aragaki’s rendition of the venerable 18 Watt Marshall Plexi “Blues Breaker.” The VRX18 is a souped up version of the PLX18, with more modern circuitry, and it sports an extra gain stage so that its second channel is more aggressive. The VRX22 is the 6V6 version of the VRX18, though its second channel is even more aggressive than the VRX18. I use all three amps in both studio and stage, and I love ‘em all. Each has a different character. But my VRX22 is hands-down my rock machine.
A couple of months ago, I tripped over a guitar cable that I had plugged into the VRX22, broke the darn tip off in the jack! Yikes! I tried taking it out myself, but Jeff used a fully-enclosed jack, and I didn’t have the right tools to dig it out, so I knew that I had to take it to Jeff. Turns out that he had to replace the entire jack altogether. Oh well, clumsy me…
While he had the amp, I asked him if he could adjust the second channel a bit. The last time I had him work on it, I asked to get a bit more gain out of the drive channel. Plus at the time, I had gotten a pair of nice 1959 RCA 6V6′s and had Jeff install them and he biased them a bit hot. The problem with my requests was that the distortion of the second channel was a little harsh, plus with that extra gain, I couldn’t get a clean tone out of the channel unless I turned the volume way down. So this time, I asked him to take the gain down a few notches. He also lowered the bias of the power tubes.
When he was done, he called me up, and told me what he did, and in his very understated manner, told me that the amp was sounding pretty good. When Jeff says something like that, I know he’s worked some magic on my equipment. This time was no exception.
I got the amp back this past Saturday, and finally got to play it for the first time in a couple of months last night. I was in the process of re-recording guitar parts on a song I wrote a few years ago, and was actually using the VRX18. But I wasn’t getting a tone that I wanted, as I needed more “oomph.” The VRX18 is pretty bright, and it has some great distortion, but I needed a “bigger” sound.
So I plugged in the VRX22, and was absolutely shocked at how it sounded. The aggressiveness was still there in the second channel, but it was much more tame and smooth. But overall, the tone was incredibly FAT! OMG!!! Jeff did something that completely transformed the amp, and I practically had a religious experience. It sounded so much bigger than it had previously; almost scooped, but not in a high-gain metal way. Could it be that the power tubes were working optimally? Who knows? All I do know is that the VRX22 was totally inspiring me!
I kind of got lost just noodling around, but I finally got down to the business of re-recording the guitar parts. At first, I was using my Les Paul ’58 Reissue, but that was just too fat. So I went with my Strat. After evaluating my takes, while I dug the Strat rhythm part, I wasn’t fully buying into the lead tone. So I went back to my R8. Then I realized that I had originally recorded the R8 on a predefined Logic track that had a lot of compression and rolled off the high EQ. So I created a raw track with no compression and EQ (though I did add a bit of compression – like 2.7 to 1 during mixdown). That made all the difference in the world as the those high-freq artifacts that I love were back. I still had to record the R8 doing rhythm part using the bridge pickup, but it definitely had the “oomph” for which I was looking.
So, here’s the song:
I replaced the right channel rhythm and the lead part with the R8. The left rhythm part is my Strat in the neck pickup plugged straight into the VRX22. Note that I didn’t use any effects save a touch of compression and some reverb in the channel strip. So the guitar sounds you hear are just the guitar plugged into the amp; no EQ. The natural fatness is amazing! :) Also, the amp was plugged into my Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator, and recorded at loud conversation levels, so there’s no speaker breakup adding to the tone. It’s all the amp.
While Jeff Aragaki and Aracom are best known for the PRX150 attenuator line, more people are discovering just how gifted Jeff is with amps. The man’s a genius, and yet so very humble. I really am very lucky to have Jeff as a friend.
The Aracom VRX22 has been my primary amp for quite some time now – almost 2 years – and I’m still discovering the beauty of this wonder 22 Watt amp. It’s no small wonder that it has been my “Go-To” amp since I’ve gotten it. It sounds so killer both clean and dirty, and tonight, I realized just how great it is with pedals!
Since I’ve had the VRX22, I haven’t been using my overdrive pedals as much. I know, I used to be a real nut about overdrive pedals, and I have several. But this afternoon, I reconfigured my board, and placed my favorite drive pedals on it with the intention of using them. This included my Doodad Guitars Overdrive/Booster, Tone Freak Abunai 2, and my KASHA overdrive.
For my gig, I set the amp up in the clean channel, with the volume at a level where I’d have to dig in a bit with my Les Paul to get some grind. This would leave me with lots of headroom to work with, and not break into overdrive so early that all I get is more overdrive, and not volume.
Then I tweaked the overdrive pedals so I’d get different characters of overdrive, depending upon what I was after. I set the Doodad up for Tube Screamer like overdrive, at just over unity gain, but with the drive knocked up a bit so I’d get lots of sustain. I set the Kasha on “Classic” at just above unity gain for a more biting, trebly tone. Then I set up the Abunai 2 for a more thick, compressed overdrive.
The one thing I love about overdrive pedals is that as opposed to providing all the distortion as with a distortion pedal, they are meant to interact with the amp so what you get is a combination of distortion characteristics from both the pedal and the amp. This combination doesn’t always work so well. I’ve played many amps and some just want to overdrive by themselves. Using an overdrive pedal with those amps just muddies the tone. It’s not pretty.
Not so with the VRX22. I’ve thrown all sorts of pedals at it, and it handles them all without a hitch. It’s especially good with overdrive pedals, and in my gig, I just kept smiling because it sounded so damn great with them! And with second channel on the VRX22 that has another gain stage that acts as a built-in overdrive, I had yet another overdrive voicing to use, and I used all four either individually, or in many cases, I’d stack two or more together. And that’s a key thing with the VRX22. It can deal very well with stacked overdrives, retaining its touch sensitivity and note separation. Other amps I’ve used when stacking just can’t deal with the stacked overdrives very well.
In any case, this kick-ass amp is something you should consider. At $895, it’s simply tough to beat for a true hand-wired, boutique amp. And for those of you who already have Jeff’s PRX150-Pro or -DAG attenuator, you already know the build quality that goes into Aracom gear. It’s simply killer!
I walked into my garage/studio this morning and looked over to my gear – there’s a lot (though probably not as much as I’ve seen from other gear sluts’ pictures). Peering over my collection, the thought struck me: What if I could only have one of each type of gear… What would I choose? What would be the basis for my decision?
After ruminating on this subject over breakfast and coffee, I decided that I’d choose the gear that gives me the most versatility with respect to tone and usability given the various types of music I play. So based upon that here are my choices:
Squier Classic Vibe Tele 50′s
Aracom VRX22 with 1 X 12 Cab
BOSS TU-2 Tuner
Aracom PRX150-Pro Attenuator
Those four things will get me through any gig or recording session. Not to say that they’re my favorite pieces of gear, but that combination will give me the most versatility with respect to versatility and usability.
What? No Goldie? Man, I love that guitar, don’t get me wrong. But that guitar is so heavy, I don’t gig with it unless I’m at a place where I have to sit down. The Tele, on the other hand, is super-light, and with its pine body, it’s very resonant, so I can get thick, almost humbucker-type sounds to nice trebly tones. Goldie offers that up and more, but she loses on usability in a variety of venues due to her weight.
The Aracom VRX22 happens to be my favorite amp in any case, but it’s my favorite because of its versatility. Once I had Jeff do the footswitch mod so I could switch between channels, and remove the clean channel from the master volume, there’s nary a tone – except for super heavy, high gain – that I can’t produce with that amp.
With respect to my TU-2 tuner, yeah, I know, there are much better ones out there, but it’s what I’ve got. But despite that, I’d rather be in tune than to have a cool effect, so that pedal would stay.
Finally, the Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator will always be a part of any rig I put together because it allows me to set limits to my max volume in any venue. Since I play mostly small to medium venues, this box is essential for dialing in just the right amount of volume for the house. And even if I have to play at super low volumes where the Fletcher-Munson effect comes into play, I can rest assured that when my amp is miked, I’ll get my true tone.
I was actually surprised by my own choice of guitar primarily because Goldie is such a tone machine. But for as much as I move around when performing, lugging a heavy guitar is definitely not my cup of tea; especially if it makes me throw out my back, which I did a couple of weeks back. But it also says loads about that Squier Tele. I’ve got some great guitars, but that little $329 wonder creates such awesome tones and it plays so great, that it’s a clear winner. I might’ve gotten lucky with my particular guitar because I’ve read some user reviews that their tone is inconsistent. I’ll play a few more to see how that holds up.
I was noodling around the other day, and came up with a riff. The riff turned into a jam track, then the jam track turned into a full song. I’m still working on the song, but thought I’d post it for folks to give it a listen. Here it is:
Here’s what I used:
Rhythm Part: Clean Strat in Neck/Middle position. My Aracom VRX22 in the Clean channel, with the Master cranked and volume at halfway. Used a Red Bear Trading Tuff-Tone pick to get that percussive sound out of the chords.
Part 1 Solo: Strat in Neck Position into my MicroVibe and the same amp settings. Also, used the Tuff-Tone pick to get a more percussive attack to the notes.
Part 2 Solo: Strat in Bridge Position into MicroVibe. Amp was set on Channel 2 with the Master dimed and volume at 6 for some nice, but not over-the-top breakup. I love that 6V6 breakup! Here I used my V-Picks Psycho to smoothen out the attack and give the bright bridge pickup a bit of extra oomph.
Part 3 Solo: Strat in Neck position, nixed the Vibe, into the clean channel with Master and Volume fully dimed. Used the Psycho here as well, but used a percussive attack.
In order to get those kind of high power settings from the amp, I used a soon-to-be-released Aracom attenuator that’s like NOTHING I’ve played through before! This thing is completely transparent because it maintains reactance between the amp and speaker; something that a lot of attenuators have a problem with (please don’t get me started on the UA, which I think is the biggest bunch of hype I’ve ever run across as far as attenuators go).
Another word about the VRX22. When the Master is fully open, and the power tubes are getting lots of juice, this amp just oozes all sorts of tone. And as the rectifier circuit kicks in, this amp feels as if it has built in reverb! As you can tell, I love this amp! Check it out at: http://www.aracom-amps.com.
I know that you might think I’m a bit nutso for using different picks; obviously in a live situation I’d probably only use one. But the in the studio where I can do pretty much anything I want, using different picks to affect my tone is totally cool. Check out Tuff-Tone picks at http://www.redbeartrading.com and the Psycho pick at http://www.v-picks.com. I swear by these two brands, and while I don’t work for either of these companies, like the Aracom Amps, they’ll always be part of my “rig.”
I know, I know… I’ve been singing the praises of this amp and cab for the last couple of months since I got them. But folks, what Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps has put together in the VRX22 is simply magic. I just can’t say enough about how much I love this amp. It doesn’t matter what guitar I plug into it, the VRX22 delivers the goods.
A New Option for the VRX22
I have the standard production model, the first in the series. In its stock mode, I wouldn’t change a thing. But I know there are some vintage gear and tube amp buffs out there that would frown upon the fact that the VRX series in stock configuration has a solid state rectifier. For me, it makes not a bit of difference; I just love the tone.
But for those that require a tube rectifier, Jeff also offers an option of a GZ34 or 5AR4 tube rectifier in place of the solid state rectifier. An A/B test didn’t reveal a tonal difference, but for the purists out there (and by no means do I mean this derisively), this is certainly an option, and a reason why you should consider this amp in your amp evaluations. And here’s another consideration: All Aracom Amps are hand-wired, and cost FAR LESS than equivalent amps. For instance, the VRX line in stock configuration costs $895! That’s unheard of in the boutique market!
Have a Cab, Will Travel
But on top of all that, the 1 X 12 mini-cab that Jeff custom built for me is simply magical as well. Jeff went against the common wisdom of not using a cube shape and porting and such, and built a simple cube shape with a width that exactly matches the width of the amp (about 19″ wide). Amazingly, this cabinet is incredibly resonant. The reason for this is that instead of using 3/4″ board, Jeff opted with 1/2″ board. This resonates a lot more with the speaker, and provides a bass response that adds depth to the output. Granted, I also have an absolutely kick-ass Jensen P12N Alnico speaker, but that cabinet even sounds good with just about any speaker you put in it. Like I said, amazing.
To further demonstrate the versatility of the VRX22 and the Aracom 1 X 12 mini-cab, I recorded a short blues clip using three different guitars, all running straight into the VRX22 with no effects. There are to overlapping rhythm parts panned left and right, and a solo in the middle. For the left pan, I used my gorgeous Prestige Heritage Elite (“Sugar”) plugged into the VRX22. For the right pan, I used my Strat (“Pearl”) plugged into my Fender Champ 600 and ran the speaker out into the 1 X 12 (I didn’t think the Champ could sound this good wow!). For the lead, I used “Sharkie,” my PRS SE II Soapbar with P-90′s in the bridge position straight into the VRX22.
Sorry for the slight mistake in the solo; or as my buddy Phil calls it, a “clam.” But overall, I was just amazed how good Sharkie sounded on that clip. I added a touch of reverb to that track, but made no modifications to the guitar signal at all. It was the guitar plugged straight into the amp.
As I’ve said in the past, I’m not affiliated at all with Aracom. I’m just a faithful customer, and just can’t sing the praises enough for the job Jeff has done!
Ever been in one of those situations where you have to face up to something you’d said or done, but avoid it all costs because it gives you this feeling of impending doom? I was recently in a situation like this, and it wasn’t at all comfortable going through the emotional and psychic turmoil leading up to the conversation the ultimately resulted in – nothing. No slap on the wrist, no punishment. Just a good conversation where everyone involved learned from the experience.
Anyway, last night I was noodling on my guitar; my eyes were closed, letting my emotions drive my playing. Then I remembered that situation, and came up with the rhythm track for the song. It’s all instrumental – it’s not something I would ever want to put to words, but I did want to convey the emotions. Give it a listen let me know what you think:
For the rhythm parts, the Strat/Hot Rod is panned to the left of the mix, and the Heritage/VRX22 (clean channel) is panned to the right. The lead part sits dead center.
I’m particularly pleased with the Hot Rod’s tone. The clean tone with that awesome spring reverb is to die for (though I had the reverb down pretty low on it to give the Strat more presence). I’m also diggin’ the Prestige Heritage Elite; especially after I set it up. In particular, I adjusted the pickup heights to smooth out the treble pickup, and to get less boom from the rhythm pickup. It’s now very balanced; and played through the VRX22, it sounds just awesome. I played the lead part through the drive channel of the amp, and set the volume so that it was just on the edge of breakup, so if I dug in a bit, I’d get just a touch of overdrive. I wanted to create an effect of subdued aggression, and the VRX22 is so dynamic, I can achieve that easily.
You ever play some gear that from the moment you start playing, you feel like you’ve died and gone to tone heaven? In the last few years, and especially in the last couple since I started writing this blog, I’ve literally played hundreds of different types of gear, covering the spectrum of all things guitar, from guitars to effects to amps. I don’t have enough time to write about all the things I’ve played, but to keep my content fresh, and to satisfy my overwhelming curiosity about different types of gear, I’m constantly trying stuff out.
And in all that time, and through all that gear, I’ve only had some gear totally slay me once: That was when I played the very first prototype of the Aracom VRX22. The back story is pretty cool, so I’ll share it with you…
Several months back, Jeff Aragaki contacted me on my blog asking if he could buy ad space. I replied that I didn’t want to commercialize my site, but if he’d be willing to send me an amp to review I’d put his logo on my “The Dawg Digs” area if I really loved his product. Fortunately for both him and me, he only lives about 40 minutes away, so he delivered what was once called the “RoxBox,” an 18 Watt, EL84-based amp. I had this thing about EL84-based amps for awhile, and was really excited to try a non-brand-name amp; not to mention that I was entirely intrigued by the fact that that hand-wired head cost only $895! That evaluation turned into testing and reviewing several of Jeff’s amps over the next few months from heads to combos with different configurations. Talk about feeling lucky to have so much gear to play with!
Jeff and I have become fast friends. We’re contemporaries not only from our obsession with vintage gear (or any kind of gear for that matter), but we’re almost the same age, and are both local boys from the Silicon Valley. Jeff’s a great guy, and someone I really enjoy spending time with; plus he’s super smart, and I like to be around smart people. :)
Anyway, a couple of months ago, Jeff called me up and said, “Hey Brendan, I’ve been working on an experiment with the RoxBox, and popped a couple of 6V6′s in the amp to see what it would sound like.”
“Oh?” I replied, “That sounds quite interesting. I dig 6V6′s a lot. They have a sweet, open distortion when they’re saturated.”
“Yeah, they do,” said Jeff, “Anyway, I was wondering if you’d like to test it out.”
I immediately replied, “Need you ask? Bring it on over!”
A couple of days later, Jeff brought the amp over to the messy garage I call my home studio. We plugged it in, I hooked up my Strat, and Jeff switched on the amp. I took one test strum in the clean channel, stopped and asked, “What did you do? This f-in thing sounds incredible! Let me play a few licks…”
Jeff didn’t say anything. He just smiled, and let me play for awhile. After a few minutes he said, “Okay, try out channel 2, so you can hear the overdrive,” at which point he plugged me into the second channel, then cranked the volume.
The amp literally sang with this beautifully smooth overdrive tone, chock full of overtones and harmonics. The tone was on the bright side, similar to the Reason SM25 that I was testing, but was rich and thick, and ballsy. I just closed my eyes and smiled, luxuriating in pure tonal heaven!
When I came out of my trance, I looked at Jeff and said, “Dude, I think you’re onto something really special here. You know I’ve played tons of different amps, but this one’s special. It’s the best-sounding amp I’ve played of yours to date; and ranks very high on my overall list. Are you thinking of putting it into production?”
“Maybe. I wanted to get your feedback. I still have some stuff to do on it, but I’m really liking the tone of this amp,” Jeff replied.
“Yeah… You’ve just piqued my curiosity.”
Fast-forward a week and I get another call from Jeff. “Hey Brendan! I worked out the power handling of the amp. The one you tested wasn’t outputting at the full 22 Watts, so I made some adjustments and now it’s running at full power. To me, it sounds even better. Anyway, I’m going away on a business trip for a couple of weeks, and I’ll leave it with you to test.”
So Jeff dropped it off a couple of days later, and test it I did. I took it to gigs, recorded some clips with it, and fell in love with it even more. Jeff was right, the power handling adjustments he made turned that amp into a pure tone machine.
When Jeff got back from his trip, we met for lunch, so I could give the amp back, and give him feedback. He asked, “So how did you like the amp?”
I replied, “Uh… the word is love. I’ll keep on testing your other amps, but this is the amp I want to buy. Everything about it is perfect. The clean channel has oodles of clean headroom, and the sag you’ve built into the simulator makes it sound like the amp has a reverb. The drive channel is like nothing I’ve played before. Quite simply, Jeff, this is the perfect amp!”
Jeff just chuckled, and said a very understated, “Glad you like it.”
Since then, I’ve purchased the amp – I got the very first in the series! And while I realize that my excitement about this amp is purely subjective, other people who’ve played this amp – WAY, WAY better guitar players than me – have been just as blown away by its tone. The other day, Jeff asked me to meet him over at Gelb Music in Redwood City to show Jordan, the guitar department manager, my VRX22 (Gelb carries Aracom Amps on consignment – for now :) ). I just chuckled when he plugged a guitar into the drive channel, cranked it up, and let it rip. He didn’t play more than 30 seconds before he said, “This amp rocks! It’s real ballsy and has tons of harmonics. Wow!”
Jordan had to help customers on the floor, so he gave the guitar over to another customer named Chris with whom Jeff and I had been chatting while waiting for Jordan. Chris sat down, and started to rip it up! He played with this hybrid picking technique that was just amazing to observe, and he made the VRX22 absolutely sing! I knew it sounded good, but in the hands of a truly gifted player like Chris, it was other-worldly!
Jordan returned a few minutes later to listen to Chris play. Mind you, it was loud. Chris was plugged into a 65 Amps 2 X12 cabinet and had the amp cranked. Jordan turned to me, and with a quizzical look on his face asked, “This is YOUR amp?”
I just laughed because I knew what he was thinking – he was hoping that it was an inventory amp so he could buy it himself. I said, “Yup. You thinking about getting one for yourself?”
Jordan just smiled and nodded his affirmative. We finally had to turn down the amp, and Jeff and I had to go, and as we were leaving, Jordan asked Jeff, “So what’s the turnaround time for when we order?”
Jeff said, “Between two to four weeks.”
“Cool. That’s just about right. Hey! Thanks for bringing the amp over, guys! Man that thing has f$ckin balls…” with a huge grin on his face, “That’s all we ask…” and he laughed.
I laughed with him. Jordan is a real bad-ass player himself, and when he has this type of reaction, I know he thinks it’s special. I told Jeff he better build two: One for the store, and one for Jordan.
Folks, I realize you might think I’m full of it when I say that the VRX22 is the perfect amp. But Jeff is really onto something with this amp. I’d put it head to head against a Dr. Z MAZ or a Buddha any day. I actually played a Dr. MAZ the other day. It’s a great amp. But guess what? The VRX22 is only $895 for the head! That’s almost half of what other hand-wired, boutique amps cost! Yeah, it doesn’t have a tube rectifier – the VRX22 is designed with a solid state rectifier for extra punch and it has a sag circuit to provide the vintage vibe. And in case you’re concerned that a solid-state rectifier means lower quality, I just have one thing to say: So what? Lots of vintage amps such as classic Marshall Plexi’s and many Fender amps use solid-state rectifiers. Besides, it’s the tone that matters, and compared to the MAZ, which is really nice, expressive amp, the VRX22 has a much bigger sound.
Fantastic sound for an unbelievable price? SOLD!
Disclaimer: I want to make it absolutely clear. Jeff doesn’t pay me to do reviews or pay me to give nothing but positive feedback. He calls me up to say he’s got some gear for me to test, and I test it, then write a review. To date, I haven’t received any bad gear from him, so I haven’t given his gear a less than stellar review. You might think this from the rave reviews I’m giving the VRX22, but just to alleviate any concerns about me having an affiliation with Jeff other than being a friend, remember that I clearly stated that I bought the amp. What I’m sharing is my excitement. And showing it to the folks at Gelb? That was purely a favor. I simply had the fortune of being able to play with the prototypes. It is truly a magical amp!
Yeah, yeah, I know… My last few posts have pretty much centered around this amp, but hey! I just can’t contain my excitement about how good it sounds! This afternoon, I brought it to my weekly church gig to try it out in a live situation. I already loved it in my little home studio, but you just don’t get to really know what am amp can do until you play it live.
Today was one of the first days that I didn’t use my pedal board all that much. In fact, I only used my chorus on one soft song, and then only used my booster at the very end of last song to throw the gain over the top to finish off the service. Other than that, I just played the amp straight. Most of the songs I played were through Channel 1, and with my Strat, the VRX22 delivered gorgeous, bell-like tones that seemed to hang in the air, with so much presence that you could almost touch them – it doesn’t even have presence knob to up the mids and highs! Switching over to Channel 2 for a couple of numbers, I was rewarded with layers of open and complex overdrive that were so very smooth; none of that phasing in and out that you often get with lesser amps at high gain. It stayed nice and even. And the sustain and touch sensitivity at high gain was just to die for – all on a Strat, no less!
When I slammed the front-end with my booster pedal, I was in compression heaven! But luckily the 6V6′s don’t compress so much that they make the amp lose volume. The compression is noticeable, but the gain tone stays fairly open. It tightens up, but not too tight.
I’ve tested several Aracom amps, and they’re all very sweet sounding. But the higher wattage amps need tons of volume before they really start sounding good. The VRX22 is so versatile. With a 1 X 12 cabinet, it can be used with ease in small to medium-sized venues, like clubs and small halls. For larger venues, a bigger cab will get you the volume you need. On top of that, both the amp and cabinet are pretty light in weight, making lugging to and from a gig real easy!
Summary: This brand-new 22 watter is the newest in the Aracom low-wattage amp series now called the Vintage Rox or VRX series, which includes the original RoxBox 18 (now called the VRX18). Loaded with a pair of 6V6 power tubes, this amp oozes vintage American clean and dirty tone ala Stevie Ray Vaughn.
Pros: More clean headroom in Channel 1 as compared to its EL84-based 18 Watt sibling. And despite its lower wattage rating, this amp is capable of getting LOUD! Plus the VRX series sports what I think are the best power switching and master volume in the business!
Price: $895 Head / $995-$1095 for Combo (dep. on speaker)
- (2) 6V6 Power Tubes
- (3) 12AX7 Preamp Tubes
- S.S. Rectifier with “sag” circuit
- Hi/Low B+ voltage switch (22/10 watts)
- On/Off Switch
- Indicator Lamp
- Custom Heavy Duty Aluminum Chassis
- Custom Wound Transformers
- 4, 8, 16 ohm Speaker Jacks
- Custom Handcrafted
- HandwiredTone Bone Rating: 5.0 – Jeff Aragaki has hit the ball out of the park with this amp! I loved the original RoxBox 18, and gave it a 4.75, but with this amp, Jeff “fixed” the harshness of the breakup at lower volumes. To me, it’s the perfect amp!
Let’s roll back the clock a couple of months. I get a call from Jeff Aragaki. The conversation went something like this…
“Hey Brendan! How’s it going?” asks Jeff.
“Not bad. Howzit with you?” I ask.
“It’s going good. Listen, I’m experimenting with a new tube compliment for the RoxBox and put a pair of 6V6′s in it to see how it sounds,” says Jeff.”
“Oh REALLY? Kinda tryin’ to get an American voicing, are ya…”
“Yeah, plus the output rating should be bit higher at around 22-25 Watts,” Jeff states.
“Okay,” I say, “Now you’ve got my attention. When can I try it out?” I ask.
<chuckle> “Well, I called to see if could bring it over to you for you try out and give me some feedback,” replies Jeff.
“Brand new amp? Experiment? Need you ask to see if I’d like to try it out? I’m free Saturday morning!” I exclaimed.
Fast-forward to the following Saturday, and Jeff lets me try the amp for a couple of days before he has to take it back, and I immediately start taking it through its paces. I even gig with it. I’d instantly fallen in love with it! I call Jeff and tell him that I think he’s onto something with this amp. He’s glad for the feedback, then a couple of days later, he picks it up to finish it out.
A few days later, he calls and tells me that he had to tweak the circuits a bit to handle the increased power. Uh-oh. So I asked, “Did it change the tone?”
“Hahaha… not at all. In fact it was actually running at way below 22 Watts. Since I reworked the circuitry, it has tons of power now, and it sounds even better. I even adjusted Channel 1 so you get even more clean headroom, and Channel 2 breaks up real nicely now. In any case, I’m going on a business trip to Indonesia and you can play with the amp for a couple of weeks while I’m gone.”
And play I did! That was one of the most exhausting two weeks of my life because I was up till late (like 2-3 am) playing that amp. I just couldn’t get enough of it, especially playing “Goldie” (a Saint Guitar Goldtop I recently reviewed) through the amp. And in all that time, I wanted to write a review of it, but I had agreed with Jeff to not talk about it (though I hinted a lot) until he got back from Indonesia and turned it into a production amp.
Once he returned from Indonesia a couple of weeks ago, he came over to pick the amp up. He asks me the usual questions about how I liked it, and I just said, “Jeff, this is a PERFECT amp! I can’t say anything bad about at all. Channel 1 is gorgeous and works great with pedals. Channel 2 just rocks the house! It’s the channel I used the most, and it’s also real pedal-friendly. And for once in my life, I’m at a total loss for words; that’s how much this amp affects me to the core.”
Jeff just laughed, and said, “Well, I’ve got a couple of other amps for you to try out…”
I cut him off, and told him that it’s fine if he wanted me to review them, but as far as what amp I’d choose to go with for my personal amp, the VRX22 was it. Search over. He laughed again, and said he’d get started on it….
Okay… fast forward to yesterday…
Jeff called me up to give me a status on my amp, and that he talked to someone this past week who is also getting one, choosing the VRX22 over a well-known boutique manufacturer. So it was definitely going into production, and he was almost done with the web page and announcement. Of course, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and immediately wrote an announcement, despite his recommendation to wait until today). :) I just promised I wouldn’t say too much, which I didn’t because I wanted to write a review.
What’s in a name…
To create alignment in the series, Jeff has renamed the “RoxBox” line to the “Vintage Rox” or VRX series. If you recall, the original RoxBox 18 sported a pair of EL84 power tubes and is now called the VRX18; and the only difference between the two amps is that the VRX22 employs 6V6′s and circuits that can deal with the increased power. In essence, with the VRX series, Jeff is providing both British (VRX 18) and an American (VRX 22) voicing options. The EL84-based VRX18 breaks up very similarly to a VOX AC15, with a lot of high-freq shimmer. The VRX22, on the other hand, breaks up like a classic Tweed. Frankly, once I have the bucks, playing both together will sound absolutely awesome!!! And priced at $895 each for the head models, that’s A LOT cheaper than a single hand-wired amp from most boutique manufacturers.
Hand-wired goodness at an affordable price
I can’t stress this enough: The thing that originally blew me away with Aracom Amps was the price of the RoxBox. I couldn’t believe Jeff could sell a hand-wired amp for less than a grand – even with a solid-state rectifier! As I’ve gotten to know Jeff, and I’ve come to understand one thing about him: He’s an incredibly shrewd businessman. As he shared with me this morning, “It’s a matter of philosophy. Some guys make boutique gear, give their stuff a nice paint job, then charge a bunch of money for their gear. Then there are other guys who just want to make a few bucks off their gear, but sell it at a lower price so more people will play it.”
The net result is that we consumers reap the rewards of that philosophy, and probably one of the reasons why Jeff’s amps are starting to gain a lot of traction in the industry. And artists have started to find out about Jeff’s amps. Gene Baker of B3 Guitars fame plays an early-model Evolver, and just recorded his new album using the Evolver in all the songs. Obviously, a guy like this who gigs all the time is a believer. I’m nowhere near Gene’s abilities, but I totally dig his amps – I think you can tell. :)
If you’re looking for a classic American tone, this amp is it. Yeah, you COULD go with a classic Tweed from Fender or other boutique manufacturers. But you’d pay way more for the sound. But I also need to qualify that. The tone is “American-like.” It has a voicing that whether Jeff stumbled onto it or not, is a voicing that is at once familiar, but all its own at the same time. To me, I don’t give a rat’s ass about the power rating of this amp. All I know is that it sounds like nothing I’ve played before. That’s the feeling I get with the Reason SM25, which is another 6V6 beauty, but has a sound all it own.
Channel 1 is bright and gorgeous. It’s chimey as you’d expect from a classic Tweed sound, but it’s amazingly very lush as well – which is where this amp is really distinct. The words that come to mind with this clean channel are “subltely sensuous.” It’s not like a hot chick dressed in a tight mini skirt. It’s more akin to a gorgeous woman dressed in a simple cotton summer dress who doesn’t need any makeup to enhance her looks, and she has nothing to prove. She just looks to be all-woman. The net result is that you’re just drawn into aura without really knowing why – nor caring. The clean channel of the VRX22 has a similar effect on me. It’s just a gorgeous tone with any guitar (though I especially loved play “Pearl,” my Strat through it. The raw tone just draws you in, and when you add effects, it just handles them beautifully.
Channel 2 is also bright and ballsy, but its breakup is incredibly smooth. This is the channel where I think Jeff has really hit the ball out of the park. One of the things that has bugged me about the power tube distortion in a lot of Tweed-types of amps is the harsh grind from the power tubes that you oftentimes have to tame with some filter cap and capacitor changes – it’s a bit too open. Not so with this amp. The “hidden” gain stage that acts as a tube overdrive pedal that’s always on helps smooth out the distortion by making it a bit tighter, but not so much that you lose that openness that you expect from a Tweed-type amp. I loved slamming the front-end of the amp with tons of input gain, and pushing both pre-amp and power tubes at the same time. Talk about compression and sustain!
Here’s a clip I used for my review of “Goldie.” The amp is in Channel 2 for the lead, and I added just a tad of Tube Screamer to get a more punchy midrange response. The TS overdrive was maybe at 10 am – not much at all. Plus I layered on some reverb with my Hardwire RV-7 Reverb. The bulk of the breakup came from the amp. The rhythm track was recorded with Pearl on Channel 1.
Man! I just listened to that track again, and can’t get over how great the amp sounds. Normally I record at bedroom levels, but I wanted the amp to move a bit more air this time, and I recorded it at gig levels (for me, that’s around 90-100db, so it’s fairly loud but not over the top), and I used a ribbon mic to pick up the ambient a bit better. The mic was placed at a 45 degree angle along the speaker cone about a foot and a half away from the amp.
I just can’t rave about this amp more! To me, it’s the perfect balance of tone and power for practically all my needs! I’m getting the head with a 1X 12 cab, both wrapped in that awesome blue tolex that you see in the picture above!
Admittedly, the purist in me originally scoffed at the idea of a solid-state rectifier in the original RoxBox series. But as I told Jeff this morning, what people are typically after is the voltage sag you get with a tube rectifier. Jeff has built a custom “sag simulator” circuit that does the job so well that frankly, I can’t tell the difference. Besides, it’s what the amp sounds like that counts, not necessarily its components. Look at the classic Roland JC-120. That has to be one of my all-time favorite amps – even Satch played with one for years. It’s completely solid-state and it sounds freakin’ awesome!
But circling back to the VRX22. You can’t go wrong with this amp. Yes, it’s priced for value, but the tone that you get for that far surpasses anything that I’ve played at these lower wattages.