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The Hottest Attenuator: Aracom PRX150-Pro

Looking for the “Doppler on the Dumble” series?

I just got my brand new BOSS Katana Artist this evening! OMG! What a beast. Since the family was home, I couldn’t really crank it, though I doubt I’ll ever really crank it at 100 Watt because it’s LOUD – even at .5 Watt. So I played around with it with my Les Paul, trying out the different gain settings, and trying out the effects.

But what I was REALLY interested in was the Line Out because I want to be able to plug this puppy into a board. On top of that, I wanted to see how my acoustic guitar sounded through the amp and the line out, because I will using the amp this Sunday at church and will be plugging it into the board.

But before I did that, I set up the amp to get a good sound through the speaker with my acoustic. It really didn’t take long at all. I just had to get the right Gain and Volume settings and do some minimal tweaking of the EQ by rolling off the highs (if I have time, I’ll probably use the 7-band Graphic EQ in Tone Studio to really dial in the EQ. But rolling it off just a smidgen got me real close.

Once I had it dialed in, I plugged in the Line Out and hooked it up to my audio interface and into GarageBand. It sounded extremely close to the live sound! I did set the Line Out Air Feel to “Live” for a distant mic simulation, but even the “Rec” setting, which is a close-mic simulation didn’t sound all that bad. But the extra “air” gave the guitar a little depth.

Inspired, I recorded a few quick tracks to demonstrate how good it sounds. Check it out:

All tracks were recorded with my Gibson J-45 Avant Garde equipped with a Seymour Duncan Mag Mic acoustic pickup. For the strummed “Take It Easy” I didn’t have a pick and used my fingernails. The muted tones are not the amp, they’re my finger. 🙂

As expected, yes, there are bits of digital traces in the tracks. But you really have to listen for them. Plus, I’m using a regular instrument cable running from the Katana to my audio interface (I have a couple of TRS cables on order). I’m expecting much better sound once I have a balanced cable. But the important thing is that running into a board, it’s going to sound awesome! What I’m looking for is a usable tone that I can send to the PA without having to mic the amp, and that tone is much more than usable.

Mind you, these tracks were recorded with no EQ or filtering whatsoever. The reverb and slight delay were applied at the amp and not in GarageBand.

One thing I was particularly keeping an eye on was the waveform for each of the tracks. If the Line Out was overly processed, there would be very little dynamics in the wave form. But the waveform for each track looks like the guitar was miked!

The picture says it all. The Line Out maintains the dynamics of what I’m playing. No compression; or little if there is any at all. It really is awesome. The sound is natural with none of those midrange transients so reminiscent of a plugged-in acoustic guitar that you hear on recordings. I’m going to have no problem using this amp plugged into a board or an interface!

To be completely transparent, I didn’t lay down any tracks with my Les Paul because I didn’t like how the wave forms were looking. But that was more a function of adding a track to an already mastered song. I will do a raw recording once I get used to dialing in the overdrive settings.

I know, providing sound samples is a little backwards compared to my usual method of doing a review, then following it up with a studio test. But I was so impressed with how the Line Out worked with my acoustic that I just had to put it out there!

I ordered a BOSS Katana Artist last week and was expecting delivery tomorrow. But this morning, I checked the delivery status, and FedEx updated the delivery to TODAY! I am SO jazzed!

After I came down from my little celebration, I thought to myself, This is one of the reasons why I’ve been such a gear slut all these years. There really is nothing like the high you get anticipating the arrival of new gear!

Whether I’m waiting for some equipment to be finished with construction or waiting for the delivery of some cool gear, I love that feeling of butterflies in my stomach at the thought of un-boxing and unwrapping a brand new… whatever…

With respect to the Katana Artist, I’m anticipating getting it dialed in to do direct recording AND plugging it directly into my PA board. Even if all I can achieve is getting a good clean tone when going direct in, I can still use pedals. The convenience factor is pretty incredible.

I also got the BOSS GA-FC foot controller so I can dial in various patches. But with the Katana, since I have four channels per bank, I’m going to set up one bank for electric, the other bank for acoustic. With my Katana 50, though it wasn’t a dedicated acoustic amp, I was still able to dial in a great acoustic tone. And given this, it will be great to be able to use a single amp to serve two different purposes. Very excited about this.

Of course, experience has shown that I may not be able to check off all the boxes of what I’d like to do with the amp, but I do love exploring all the different possibilities!

I got mildly chided the other day by a friend of mine while we were discussing gear. He said it in a fairly facetious way to mess with me because I’ve always been a proponent of “if it sounds good, then it is good” mentality. We happened to be talking about analog delays and I went off on a tangent about bucket-brigade devices and a bit of the history of the circuit.

“Dude…” my friend interrupted, “Does that really matter if you like the sound?” he asked with a smirk.

I laughed and replied, “In the end, maybe not. But you know me. I like to geek out. Besides, it drives my wife crazy!” We both laughed at that!

Mind you, when I’m talking about specs here, it’s not necessarily about the normal features that you see in the marketing literature, but much more about the minute technical details. For instance, the winds of a pickup magnet or the makeup of an amp’s circuitry, or how the bucket-brigade device came into being.

I’m naturally curious to see how stuff works, so I often take some time to research technical things I wonder about. For instance, I was wondering about the microprocessor or DSP used in the BOSS Katana line that gives the amps their voices. The information I came across in forums and articles is pretty fascinating.

One interesting tidbit was the “sneaky amps” models that apparently are in all Katana amps. These apparently are part of some old code in the firmware that’s based on the GT-100 models that BOSS hasn’t cleaned up yet, and with the right SysEx command, you can expose them in the Tone Studio. Pretty neat.

But in the end, none of that matters. I suppose with a deeper understanding of the technical details it may help in eeking out subtleties while I’m playing, but let’s face it. Only I will know. 🙂

Mind you, I’m saying all this tongue in cheek, mainly because I laugh at myself sometimes when I start geeking out. And perhaps it’s my way of reminding myself where my focus should be and that’s on making music.

Ever since I got my BOSS Katana 50, my world has been turned upside down with respect to what a “good” amp is. For years, like many, I was of the mind that good could only come from a tube amp with just a few exceptions. No way could a solid state amp match the tone, feel, and dynamics of a tube amp. Oh, solid state amps could definitely keep up with tube amps with respect to clean tones, but when you’d get into overdrive territory, the sound would be brittle with very little in dynamics on offer.

But when I first auditioned the Katana 50 in my local Guitar Center, I was blown away. On that fateful day, I was expecting to just get a clean platform to put pedals in front of, but even with the short amount of time I played with the higher gain models – and at low volume, mind you – I knew this amp was something special. I bought it on the spot.

I have since given my Katana 50 to my youngest child and am awaiting delivery of a Katana 100 Artist. And as I wait, it really hit me: No way would I ever had thought to even consider a solid state amp – even just two or three years ago!

Yes, there were Axe FX, Kemper, and the Helix amps/modelers out there, and have been there for several years. But all those were out of my price range, so I just stuck with what I could afford; or to put a finer point on it, stuck with my tube amps. Plus, after my experience with my old Line 6 Flextone III, the thought of spending hours twiddling with software or doing amp profiling just didn’t appeal to me.

But with the Katana 50, the default sounds worked for me. Oh yes, I did do some tweaking in the Tone Studio like unlinking the delay from the reverb, but that was all I did. I’ve been using BOSS pedals for years – not really my primary pedals – so I was familiar with them, and the default settings were just fine with me. And that really was the kicker for me. Roland made it easy for me to just plug in and go.

I really have been faced with a quandary since then: I literally have thousands of dollars invested in tube amps, and now I have an amp that costs a fraction of the price that I’d rather play over my tube amps. And with that thought, I asked myself: What makes this so special?

Compared to solid state amps of old, new solid state amps are also digital; that is, circuitry is controlled by software, or more precisely, embedded firmware on a chip. Old solid state amps had limited firmware, so the sounds they produced were basically a function of the physical electronics. But with the much more sophisticated software of today, the ability to tweak and tune the chips has increased dramatically, producing these great-sounding and great-feeling amps. Definitely not your daddy’s solid state amp!

And the fact that they can be produced much cheaper than a tube amp while providing comparable sound quality and feel and dynamics is a testament to how far technology has come. Digital amp technology has come so far now that I no longer think about the components, when evaluating amps. I just want to know if the amp has a good sound and the feel and dynamics I’ve come to expect from a good amp, damn the technology. And the Katana 50 has just continued to perform for me on all fronts, save recording, which is why I’m moving up to the 100 Artist.

But the first time I did a full show with my Katana 50 where it was really pushing air, I about fell over in shock. Up until that point, I had only used the amp at church. I knew it sounded great at lower volumes (< 90 dB), but hadn’t played it in a real live situation where I could really open up the amp. The big sound that the 50 produced was just incredible! It was full and rich and punched right through the mix when I did a solo. Plus it had sag, or at least the digital equivalent to sag. That was completely unexpected. Right then and there, I was forever sold on it! It just reinforced the idea that the playing field in the amp world is becoming quite level.

Roland is a pioneer in this field (think the Cube line). Yes, there were competitors like Line 6 when digital amps started making inroads to the industry. But Roland was really the first to make the technology accessible, and they did this by limiting options. As I mentioned above, I had a Line 6 Flextone III. Great amp, but I spent more time tweaking it than I did playing it, and that just frustrated me. The Cube 60 that I had, on the other hand, was straight-forward: Twiddle a few knobs and I was off to the races.

And now with the Katana 100 Artist that I have coming to my doorstep this morning, I will have what could be considered the pinnacle of Roland’s digital amp prowess.

But why the Artist as opposed to the 100 which is much less in price? I have a couple of reasons. First, based on what I’ve heard in A/B demos online, the larger cabinet and Waza speaker provide a much richer sound than the smaller cabinet of the KTN-100. Also – and it might be a minor thing to some – the controls are located on the front of the amp. I put my amps on a stand that leans them back when I’m gigging, and making adjustments is a pain when they’re located on the backside of the top of the amp.

But even more important than those two things above are two controls that are exposed on the Artist that are not present on the KTN-100: Cabinet Resonance and Line Out Air Feel knobs (shown below).

These settings are only available in the software with the KTN-100. And they’re HUGE features for me because especially when I play at church, I will be using the Line Out to go into the board. On one demo of the Line Out feature that I watched, the Line Out Air Feel made a big difference in the sound produced by the line out. And being able to dynamically set the cabinet resonance on the fly is so awesome. If I’m playing a brooding song with deep cleans, I can set to deep. As I said, these had to be set from within Tone Studio, but if I can set them at a venue without having a computer, that’s huge! And it’s what took it over the top for me.

Truth be told, I will not get rid of my tube amps, but I seriously doubt that I will buy more in the future. The amps I do have will be used mainly in the studio when I want a specific sound. I have to admit that I’m a little sad about this because they’ve become such great companions over the years. But there’s no denying that the versatility that the Katana brings to the table just can’t be ignored.

Am I Done with Tube Amps?

I’ve struggled with this question ever since I got my BOSS Katana 50 (BTW… it’s properly pronounced KAH-tah-nah, not kah-TAHN-nah – had a student who sings with me at church who speaks Japanese correct me). With the Katana 50, I got all the sound and dynamics that I needed; all in a super-lightweight amp. It took to pedals incredibly well but had it’s own very good built-in effects as well. And it was plenty loud. Now I say “was” because I technically no longer have the Katana 50. Oh, it’s in my house, but I gave it to my son for his birthday.

Which leads me back to the title of this article…

Last weekend, I played my Aracom VRX22 tube amp at church. All that Plexi mojo was there that I expected. But I have to say that I really missed my old Katana 50, especially with respect to setting up my rig. With my Katana, I had everything dialed in before I got to the church so it was simply a matter of setting the amp on my stand and plugging it into power and plugging in my guitar – all of a minute or so. With my tube amp, I had a lot more setup; not just with the physical connections. I then had to set up the tone and volume and make adjustments to both channels. Not really a big deal, but it did take considerably more time.

The convenience that my Katana 50 brought to the table was huge; enough to make me look for a new Katana, but I’m now looking at getting Katana 100 Artist this time ’round because of the extra versatility – especially the line out that I can plug directly into a board for playing live or an audio interface for recording. At least for a recording, I’ll still use IRs because nothing beats the specific character of a tube amp. But for general stuff, especially cleans, going all-digital is fine.

Back to gigging though, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a tube amp for gigging. The versatility of the Katana is just too hard to beat; not to mention the simplicity of setup. Plus, it has all the feel and dynamics of a tube amp, but gives me everything I need to gig with in a single unit. And with the Katana 100 Artist (which I’ve just ordered while taking a break writing this article and isnow on the way), I will spend the time to dial in the effects, so my aim is to do away with my pedalboard altogether.

That’s a sobering thought because I literally have thousands of dollars invested in tube amps and accessories like attenuators and pedals; not to mention software like IRs. Part of me feels really bad about relegating my tube amp gear to the studio. But a larger part of me is SUPER-excited about taking advantage of new technology.

People have asked me if I can tell if the amp is digital. The answer is yes. The attack of a solid-state amp is much more sudden than a tube amp, especially with a purely dry signal, so it takes a little getting used to at first. But it’s possible to tame that with some modulation effects, and irrespective of the type of amp I play, I always grease the sound with a little reverb and a touch of delay anyway. But that said, the attack is very similar to the attack of my ’58 Fender Champ. With that amp, there is NO room for error.

Sound-wise though, it’s hard to tell but that really doesn’t matter because it just sounds good. And no one from a congregation or an audience has ever come up and asked me, “Is that a solid-state amp you’re playing?” 🙂

So… great sound? Check. Versatility? Check. Ease of use? Check. I’m in!

Last night, I watched a Dan Rather “Big Interview” episode from 2015 with guest, Carlos Santana. Santana’s music has always held a special place in my heart as I grew up listening to it. The riff from “Oye Como Va” has haunted my consciousness for close to 50 years now, since it came out in 1970.

In fact, “Abraxas,” on which “Oye Como Va” was on was my very first rock and roll cassette! I played that cassette till the text was well worn off and until the tape finally broke. It became one of my chores tapes, blasting out of my boom box while I did chores, especially yard work. And though I’ve had several guitar influences over the course of my playing career, Santana’s guitar playing will always hold a special place in my heart because his sound represents a sound of my youth that has been indelibly etched into my memory.

But more than his sound, it is the man himself who has provided me with so much inspiration. Santana is a very spiritual man. His approach to playing is incredibly spiritual. I connect with that because I’m exactly the same way with how I approach the instrument. I daresay that Santana’s influence though perhaps not overt, has been there implicitly.

Circling back to the interview with Dan Rather, Dan asked Carlos what he would say to someone who wanted to pick up guitar. Carlos simply replied, “I tell them, ‘Look at that guitar. Can hear it playing? When you look at it, does it give you the chills? If it doesn’t, maybe you should think about doing something else.”

When I heard that, I first thought, Damn! That’s harsh. But when I gave it a little thought, I have the same reaction with my own guitars. When I look at my guitars, I get the chills. I can hear their sound in my head and heart without playing them. The way I play each guitar is a little different as I adjust to each one’s personality. I know, that might sound a little weird. But guitar playing is an extremely spiritual thing for me. I connect with the soul of the instrument. It gives me the chills.

So I get what Santana is saying.

Lately, my wife and I have been getting into watching Dan Rather’s “The Big Interview,” not just the new ones, but catching up with past episodes as well. A few weeks ago, we watched the Pat Benetar and Neil Giraldo interview. Wow! What a pair! Great parents and of course, super-solid and successful musicians.

At the start of the show, I shared with my wife that Neil was one of my favorite musicians. She asked me if it was because of his guitar technique. But I told her it was partially that (I love his tone and stage presence), but mostly because he was the type of guitarist who played for the song, not for the tricks and flash; something that I’ve always strived to do with my own playing.

At one point in the interview, he mentioned exactly that; that he played for the song, and he wasn’t all that interested in playing screaming solos. Back in the 80’s, I saw Pat Benetar live a few times. Neil was the rock of the band. Just a solid presence. Oh, he could rock, but he was just absolutely solid and always in the pocket. And to hear him share his ethos about guitar playing totally affirmed why I like him so much.

Even playing acoustic guitar, Neil is just solid. Here’s a video of Pat and Neil doing an NPR Tiny Desk session:

I’ve always had an immense admiration for pocket players like Neil Giraldo. Steve Cropper also comes to mind. My thought is that if you play for the song, it just makes that song much better as a whole.