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Fishman SA220 Solo Amp

Summary: Compact and weighing in at just 25 lbs., the SA220 Solo Amp is an ideal PA solution for the solo acoustic guitarist/vocalist, but it’s versatile and loud enough to be used as a PA for a band (if you have a couple of them).

Pros: It may not have the Bose name, but I’d put this up against the L1 Compact system any day. With built-in, independent, 3-way EQ, and a variety of other features, if you’re a solo acoustic artist, you owe it to yourself to check this unit out! I got it set up in less than a minute!

Cons: None

Features:

  • Drivers
  • – Six 4″ mid-woofers, patented dual gap, high excursion design, neodymium magnets (200W)
    – One 1″ neodymium soft dome tweeter with level control (20W)

  • Auxiliary Stereo Input with Level control
  • Four Digital Reverb effects with master level
  • Balanced XLR D.I. outputs for both channels and main mix
  • Independent effect loops for Channel 1 and Channel 2 (OMG!!!)
  • Unique Monitor I/O for improved on-stage ensemble monitoring
  • Mute with remote footswitch input
  • Tuner Output
  • Ships with Stand and padded Carry Bag (w/ wheels)
  • Dimensions: 41.5″ H x 5.6″ W x 6.6″ D
  • *Weight: 25 lbs without Stand, 35lbs with Bag and Stand

Price: $999 Street

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Talk about ease of use! As I mentioned above, I got the SA220 set up in less than a minute! And my Yamaha APX900 sounds absolutely killer through this, not to mention the great clarity of the vocals. This is a winner, folks!

Year over year, I play between 100 to 150 gigs a year, with about half of them as a solo acoustic act. My solo gigs have consisted mainly of my weekly restaurant gig, but I do lots of weddings and special events throughout the year as well. Of late, the restaurant I gig at moved my act outside in a public patio area as the weather is gorgeous.

To make a long story short, even though the restaurant has a decent PA system, I ended up bringing my own PA last week, which was the first week we did the outdoor show. That worked pretty well, and my PA has a great sound. But it also made me realize that the old mixing board, and big 300 Watt speakers was just too much gear to haul around. Even if I ended up using the restaurant’s PA, which is a nice one, I’d still have to lug the board and speakers and stands down from the office upstairs. Enter the Fishman SA220 Solo Amp.

Plug It In and Go!

I finally received my SA220 today after having to wait for a couple of weeks for it to arrive (had to be ordered). So when I got home, I knew I had to try it out to see how it sets up, and of course, to work out kinks before I gig with it. There’s nothing worse than fighting your rig or sound DURING a gig – especially when you’re solo.

The guys at the shop assured me that Fishman’s claims of easy setup were true. I am now a believer! I had the SA220 set up in exactly 42 seconds!!! That didn’t include hooking up my pedal board, guitar, and microphone, but I had the system on its tripod stand and plugged into power, ready to go, in that short amount of time. That just blew me away! Plus, everything you need to get up and running fits into a single carrying unit that consists of two bags: One for the array/PA, and one for the tripod that buckles to the main bag. Talk about convenience! Fishman really had the solo artist in mind when they built this!

How It Sounds

For my audition, I just plugged my guitar into the SA220 directly, and hooked up my microphone. All I can say is that the sound is spectacular! I was actually concerned about the bass response of the unit, but apparently Fishman distributes the bass response among the six main mid-woofers. It may not get boomy with the bass, but the sound is absolutely rich, and vocals are clear and full. Normally, I use a DI to go into a board – and will probably do the same with this unit, but my guitar sounded clear and natural and full plugged in directly without those annoying high-end transients and flattened tone that is so annoying with plugged in acoustics. Admittedly, the ART system in my Yamaha APX900 has quite a bit to do with that, but Fishman really knows how to condition sound.

At first, I had a bit of a problem with feedback, but setting the phase switch and tweaking the anti-feedback knob (it’s a variable frequency notch filter designed to subdue a resonant peak – just turn it to where the feedback gets reduced or eliminated – very cool), and attaching the rubber sound hole cover on my guitar took care of the feedback problem.

Luckily no one was home when I tested the SA220. I set it up outside so I could see how it performed. Damn! Even with just 220 Watts, the SA220 is LOUD!!! I had the Master volume set at around 10 am, and that will be enough to fill the large patio space I’ll be playing in tomorrow! It’s not a stretch to say that the SA220 can cover a lot of venues.

As far as listening angle is concerned, the SA220 disperses the sound incredibly well! Even at extreme angles, where I was almost even with the array, the sound was clear with good volume. Of course, narrower angles are better, but this unit will have no problem playing in the open space I’ll be playing.

Talk About Bang for the Buck!

The sound is great, but I have to tell you, I was ready to get the Bose L1 Compact, which is a great unit, but the mere fact that if I wanted more EQ control and other features, I’d have to spend another $499 really soured my taste for the unit. On the other hand, Fishman has packed all sorts of features into the SA220 that make it hands-down the better value. Independent 3-band EQ for each channel, phase and anti-feedback control, 4 types of digital reverb, a mute switch (that is REALLY handy!), independent balanced XLR outs to go into a board, and my favorite feature: independent effects loop for each channel! You just can’t argue about with what comes built-in on this unit!

Overall Impression

It’s hopefully obvious that I love this unit! For me as a solo artist, it’s a true game changer! It’s light and versatile, and the sound is spectacular. What more could I ask for?

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Some people may scoff at the diminutive Fender Champ 600. After all, it’s only 5 Watts and has a tiny 6″ speaker. But those naysayers may be missing the point about the Champ or any super-low wattage speaker for that matter. It’s not meant to be a performance amp; though you can certainly hook it up to an extension cabinet, and it’ll do just fine in a small venue – hey! I do that A LOT. But the secret behind the beauty of this little $149 wonder isn’t on the stage, it’s in the studio.

I’ve heard feedback from various people that they get frustrated with this amp because it’s missing certain features. Let’s face it folks, with a single volume knob, no tone control, and not much gain on tap, it would be easy to dismiss this amp as nothing more than a toy. But it’s no mistake that its venerable sibling, the Champ, has been a mainstay in professional studios for decades. It’s all in how you make use of what it has to offer.

First off, let’s establish what I think is the most important thing when recording this amp: The Champ is really good at creating your base tone, and that’s all that it should be used for. It’s up to you to shape it. Keep that in mind, and you’ll get more than a lot of mileage out of it. So let’s look at some key factors when recording with the Champ:

  • The Champ is naturally bright because of its small speaker. So microphone placement is absolutely critical. If you want to get a bright, twangy sound with lots of treble content, place your mic head on in the center of the cone, or just off center to avoid getting those treble “pops.” If you want less treble response, move the mic off-center, nearer to the edge of the speaker cone. I’ve found that the richest sound comes from angling the mic at about the same angle as the speaker cone, placed right at the outer ring about an inch off the grille cloth. The EQ response is a lot flatter there, and makes it easy to dial in your EQ in your DAW.
  • Even cranked in the high input, and even with humbuckers, the most breakup you’ll get is about “dirty blues” overdrive. But that’s why we have overdrive and distortion pedals, right? I’ve found that Tube Screamer and TS-type overdrive pedals work great with the Champ, though my Holy Fire distortion can make the Champ serve up some whoop-ass if dialed in just right.
  • Looking for Fender cleans? The Champ does raw Fender cleans – and quite well. Again, it’s all about mic placement when recording cleans with the Champ. My favorite is angled as I described above.
  • Do yourself a favor and replace the stock tubes with NOS tubes. I’ve never been a big fan of Groove Tubes (though I know some people like them). But with a great NOS pre-amp tube (I’ve got a ’59 GE long plate), and a solid NOS 6V6 (mine is a ’53 GE 6V6), you’ll immediately tame the harshness of the amp. In fact, I’ve never seen a need to replace the power transformer or the speaker because of this $50 investment.

So with those points in mind, go and record. What you’ll get after you’ve played around a bit is a great, raw guitar tone. But your work isn’t done yet – or it could be if you’re satisfied with the raw tone. Personally, I like to add filters and effects in production to make the recording sound like it’s coming from a much bigger amp. Yes, boys and girls, you can make it sound MUCH bigger!

A Word on Amp Modeling

One thing that I have also done with the Champ is to record a purely clean rhythm tone, then run it through IK Multimedia’s Amplitube plug-in to essentially “re-amp” my guitar. You can get some amazing guitar tones with the Champ when it’s re-amped through this software.

My Champ 600 Recording Process

A couple of people have asked me how to record the amp, so I thought I’d share the process I employ:

  1. First, it starts with the guitar. Am I looking for a single-coil or humbucker tone. The cool thing about the Champ 600 is that what you hear when you play through it is your raw guitar tone. There’s no EQ so you have to establish that on your guitar. Simple enough.
  2. Then I’ll determine whether or not I want to track with effects. Usually, I’ll only track with overdrive or distortion. I leave all the modulation effects to production.
  3. Next, I place my mic head, dead-center on the speaker, then record a chord progression and perhaps some quick lead licks.
  4. Then I’ll move the mic off-center and repeat the same thing I played with the mic centered.
  5. Finally, I’ll angle the mic as described above and repeat the same progression. More likely than not, I’ll use this position because I like it the best, but different guitars actually sound better with the mic positioned dead-center.
  6. Once I decide what mic position I’ll use, then I’ll record the track.
  7. Once I’m finished, it’s time to apply EQ, filters and modulation effects. I like to use a hi-pass filter on most recordings with Champ to “tame” its natural edginess.

Here are some clips that I put together based upon the process above (I skipped recording head-on, off center):

Clean (Squier Classic Vibe Tele 50’s)

1. Mic head-on, dead-center

2. Mic angled along speaker cone, 1″ off the grille cloth.

Recording #2 with Graphic EQ, Chorus, Parametric EQ, Delay, Reverb, and Hi-pass filter applied

Overdriven with Tube Screamer for Extra Drive (Gibson Nighthawk 2009)

1. Mic head-on, dead-center

2. Mic angled along speaker cone, 1″ off the grille cloth.

Recording #2 with Graphic EQ, Flange, Delay, Reverb, and Hi-pass filter applied

It’s amazing what EQ, filters and effects can do to the recording! And it really didn’t take that much work to dial in the final version of what I wanted to ultimately print!

Finally, here’s a song I wrote and record awhile back (sorry for the over-abundance of bass). If I remember correctly, I used four guitars in six parts in that song (Epiphone Explorer, Gibson ES-335, MIM Strat, PRS SE Soapbar II), all recorded with the Champ – and with the stock speaker no less!

Rock on!!!

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So you’re thinking about taking the leap and buying your first electric guitar? Choosing a guitar, amp, and pedals doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it might seem. There are a few things you’ll want to consider and keep in mind though.

What are your goals?

In other words, what types of music do you want to play? The type of guitar and amp you get will largely depend on the type of music you want to play. If you can identify, the types of music you’ll be playing, this can help you narrow down what types of guitars you might buy.

For example, if country is your thing, you might want to get a more twangy type of sound, so you would look at something like a Telecaster. If you’re a rocker, to get a really fat and dark type of sound, you’ll want to look at a Les Paul or an SG with some humbucker pickups. If you’re into metal, you’re going to want to be focusing more on your amp and effects pedals to get a hi-gain distorted sound. And then, if jazz is more your thing, you might want to look at a semi-hollow body guitar like an Epiphone Dot to get that darker, warmer sound you’d except from jazz.

In all reality, one electric guitar is not just limited to play one style of music, but guitars generally have different tonal characteristics, so identifying the sound you’re going for can help narrow down your options too.

What’s your budget?

Before you even start looking at buying guitars, it’s really important you set some sort of budget. What can you afford? When it comes to buying guitar gear, the sky is the limit, so having a budget gives you a bit more focus in what you’re looking at and eliminates a bunch of options.

It’s been my experience with guitars that more often than not, like most things, you generally get what you pay for when you consider the quality (there are always exceptions). A $100 dollar guitar is most likely going to play, sound, and feel much different than a $500 guitar. Generally, the cheaper you go, the quality tends to be poorer (e.g. doesn’t stay in tune, poor action, fret buzz, poor electronics, etc.). You don’t need to shell out a ton for your first electric guitar, but you also want something that will be inspiring to play and won’t give a lot of trouble down the road either.

You’ll not only want to consider the guitar in your budget, but you’ll also want to consider your amp and effects pedals (e.g. distortion, delay, reverb, etc.) as well.

It’s important that you see your first electric guitar purchase as an investment. I think one of the fears is, “What if I shell out all this money and then end up not sticking to it?” Even if you do end up finding out that guitar is not really for you, if you’ve made a good investment, you can always make a good part of that money back in resale. You might want to consider buying used too. Check eBay, Craigslist, and your local newspaper’s classifieds.

All to say, what can you afford? Set your budget and stick with it.

Gear Recommendations

So you’ve thought about your goals and have set a budget. Now what? It’s time to start looking at some gear. You have to keep in mind there are literally hundreds of options for a beginner’s set up, so recommendations are going to vary person to person. For my recommendations, I hesitate to suggest you something so dirt cheap that it’s going to cause you grief later down the road, but I also realize you don’t need to break the bank either.

I’ve divided these recommendations up into three categories depending on the type of music you want to play: country/pop/blues, rock/metal, and jazz. And then, within those categories I’ve given a couple different price categories depending on your budget. Also, keep in mind that a lot of these guitars aren’t restricted to play only the music in their category. For example, I know a lot of guys who will play an Epiphone Dot in a rock setting.

Country/Pop/Blues

  • Epiphone Special-II GT ($199.99)
  • Epiphone Les Paul 100 ($299.99)
  • Fender Standard Telecaster ($499.99)
  • Fender Standard Stratocaster ($499.99)
  • Gretsch Electromatic ($699.99)

Rock/Metal

  • Dean Vendetta XMT ($159.00)
  • Epiphone Explorer-GT ($199.99)
  • Epiphone G-310 SG ($249.99)
  • B.C. Rich Metal Master Warlock ($299.99)
  • Epiphone Les Paul Studio Deluxe ($399.99)

Jazz

  • Epiphone Dot ($399.99)
  • Ibanez Artcore AF75 ($399.99)
  • Gretsch Electromatic ($699.99)

Now, choosing an electric guitar is only half the battle. You’re going to need an amp or a multi-effects processor. Some amps are “combo amps” which means they have some effects built in to them (e.g. distortion, reverb, chorus, delay, etc.). These are definitely worth looking at for a beginner.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of country, blues, and rockers can often use a amps built in overdrive and gain channel to get a distorted sound, but if you are playing metal, you probably need to look at some sort of hi-gain distortion pedal in addition to your amp.

Amps

  • Fender 25R Frontman Series II Combo Amp ($99.99)
  • Vox Valvetronix VT15 Combo Amp ($169.99)
  • Line 6 Spider IV 75W Combo Amp ($299.99)
  • Vox Valvetronix VT50 Combo Amp ($379.99)
  • Peavey Classic 30 Tube Amp ($599.99)

Sometimes players will opt out of getting an amp and just getting a multi-effects processor unit that has amp models and effects built in to one box. This might be a great option for your first guitar.

Multi-effects Processor Units

  • DigiTech RP255 ($149.99)
  • Line 6 Floor POD Plus ($199.99)
  • DigiTech RP355 ($199.99)
  • Line 6 POD X3 ($399.99)

This is just a starting point. The best thing to do is to go into the store and play as many different guitars and play through as many different amps as you can, or if you can’t play very well, bring someone along who can or knows a lot about guitars so you can get their opinion and hear what it sounds like.

So let’s recap. It’s important to think through your goals and your budget. Thinking through these things really eliminates a lot of your options. You don’t have to spend a ton on your first guitar, but do think of it like an investment. Your guitar is only half of the equation so don’t forget about an amp or a multi-effects unit. And lastly, there’s nothing like going into a store with a friend and trying out as many different pieces of gear as you can.

All of you guitar veterans out there… what would you recommend to a beginner player getting their first electric guitar?

Brett McQueen is a full-time music student, guitar player, songwriter, and blogs in his spare time. Brett is passionate about teaching free guitar lessons for beginners so other guitar players can take their playing to the next level and reach their goals.

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There are two things you should consider doing before you decide to get rid of it. I’ve done this on two amps, and have ended up keeping them both.

1. Change your speaker(s)

Let’s state the obvious: An amp’s speaker produces the sound, but it is amazing how many people I’ve come across who don’t look at replacing this vital component first when they’re not happy with their tone. I know, evaluating speakers is tough, and a lot of the time, you can only rely on people’s words and frequency response charts. I actually find frequency response charts useful in making a decision on a new speaker. If I want more mid-range and presence, I’ll look at speakers whose frequency response charts are big in the mids and high-mids, with a much more smooth bass response curve, like the Jensen P12N. If I’m looking for more bottom end, and a slightly scooped tone, I’ll look for a speaker that has those kinds of characteristics, such as the Fane Medusa 150. Of course, you have to hear the speakers in the end to decide if they work for you, but the frequency response chart is a good place to start.

2. Change your pre-amp tubes

I’m a NOS tube fanatic. To me, there’s nothing like the build and tonal quality of a good NOS tube. The ones I’ve chosen tend to have a bit less gain than newer tubes, and they break up so much more smoothly. But that’s just me. I want a smoother overdrive tone, whereas someone else may want a harsher tone. To each their own on this. However, changing tubes – especially pre-amp tubes – can have a profound effect on your tone. Like speakers, you have to try several before you find ones that fit your tastes, but it’s worth it once you do. And note, with respect to tubes, you get the most bang for your buck by replacing the pre-amp tubes as opposed to the power tubes. I use JJ power tubes for practically all my amps, and you know what? I’ve never replaced any of them because I just haven’t seen that much tone improvement by replacing them.

Where I have seen LOTS of improvements is in replacing the pre-amp tubes, as you’ll see below…

As I stated above, I saved two of my amps from the chopping block. Yeah, I had to spend a bit of money to save them, but save them I did. My most recent “save” experience was with my Aracom PLX18 BB. This amp is based upon the classic Marshall 18 Watt Plexi “Bluesbreaker.” When I first got it, I loved it, but one thing that I didn’t quite bond with was the fizz that the amp naturally produced. I really dug the mild distorted tone of the amp, but there was just something that wasn’t quite “right” when I’d crank the amp all the way.

So the first thing I did to bleed off some of the highs was to replace the stock speaker. The Red Coat Red Fang is a nice, bright speaker, but brand new, it’s pretty harsh, and I didn’t want spend a lot of time breaking it in. But even still, the amp was naturally bright, and with a bright speaker, I just didn’t feel it was a good fit. As luck would have it, I had another speaker on hand, a Fane Medusa 150. The thing about this speaker is that it has a real strong, tight bass response. Once I had it installed, I couldn’t believe my ears! It really balanced out the brightness of the amp, and curbed a lot of the fizz.

But there was still some fizz left. Knowing that there were JJ’s in the pre-amps, which have a lot of gain, my thought was that they were throwing a lot of gain at the EL84 power tubes, which can get fizzy when driven hard. So I swapped them out for a set of NOS circa 1959 GE and RCA long plate 12AX7’s, which are oh-so-smooth and a have a bit less gain than the JJ’s. The result was simply magnificent!

That clip was recorded with the Aracom PLX18 BB, and using my LP copy Prestige Heritage Elite. Sorry, I don’t have a “before” clip, but before I did those two simple modifications, the amp produced a ton of fizz that I just couldn’t connect with, even though I loved the dynamics when it was fully cranked. Now, I can crank that puppy up, and get those rich tones with no fizz.

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When I first reviewed the Fane Medusa 150, though I gave it a pretty good rating at 4.5 Tone Bones, I wasn’t really blown away by its tone because of its big bottom end, and recommended that the speaker be put into a 2 X 12 balanced out by a speaker with more top-end sparkle. What I didn’t consider was how it could be used to balance out the tone of a naturally bright amp.

Take, for instance, my review on the Aracom PLX18 BB Trem. One of the nits I had with the combo was that the Eminence Red Coat Red Fang was way too bright for the already naturally bright amp, causing me to bleed off highs when I was mixing the song. FYI, EQ’ing my guitars in my recordings is usually a real no-no with me because I like the pure sound of my guitars and amps on a recording. The only things I’ll add in production are reverb or a touch of delay if necessary. I love the tone of the PLX18, but that speaker just didn’t work for me.

Enter the Fane Medusa 150. That speaker is actually on loan from Tonic Amps. I’ve actually had it for a few months now, and I keep on forgetting to drop it off at Darin’s new place. Well, it looks like I’m probably going to buy it off him after all because I swapped out the Red Fang for the Medusa 150 in the PLX18, and suddenly the seas parted and a way was made clear! The PLX18 tone was completely transformed! Instead of being a purely bright amp, the PLX18’s tone became much more balanced. The highs and high-mids were still present but were much more tame. This resulted in a much richer tone.

As you may know, I’ve been working on a new song called “Strutter.” I actually had the song completely recorded, but I hadn’t finished it because I just haven’t been completely satisfied with the lead guitar tone. When I got the PLX18, I knew it would be the amp I’d use to record the song. But with the stock speaker, and even with my Jensen P12N, it still wasn’t cutting it for me. I even mentioned that the amp loves the Red Coat “The Governor,” and it does, but I still wasn’t completely satisfied. Now, with the Medusa 150 in the cabinet, I’ll be completing the song. Let’s compare, shall we?

Here’s the original, recorded with the PLX18 BB with the stock Red Coat. I’m playing my LP copy, Prestige Guitars Heritage Elite:

Now, here’s a clip of the song with the Fane Medusa 150. I’m playing Goldie in her bridge pickup:

Sorry for the differences in volume levels. But where the Red Fang has much more presence, and an in-your-face presentation, the Medusa’s tone is so much more three-dimensional and more refined. The mids and highs are still present and incredibly articulate, but they’re so much less piercing! And one thing that I noticed immediately with the Medusa is the clarity of the notes through the entire EQ spectrum, whereas the Red Fang seemed to lose a bit of clarity at high-gain settings – especially when I play those transition chords. Note that the amp and mix settings stayed completely the same between the two recordings, and both guitars were played through the Trem channel which was completely dimed. I also removed the wah from the second clip because I didn’t feel the need to mix it up. For that part, I did stack my KASHA Overdrive and Geek Driver overdrive pedals, but set to unity gain, and to add just a touch of compression and sustain. Not much, but just a touch.

So what’s the moral of the story? Simple: Amp and speaker combinations are critical to good tone. Some speakers, like my P12N work with a bunch of different amps. But some speakers, like the Medusa, work much better at balancing out certain amp characteristics. I’ve learned a good lesson here: You have to try out gear in different configurations and situations. Had I not tried to experiment with the Medusa, I probably would’ve just passed it off as a good speaker that belongs in a 2 X 12 cabinet with a bright speaker.

For more information on Fane speakers, talk to Darin at Tonic Amps! Tonic is the North American distributor for Fane speakers.

For more information about the incredible Aracom PLX18 BB Trem, please go to Aracom Amplifiers.

By the way, both clips were recorded at conversation levels using the fantastic Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator, by far the best attenuator on the planet, from my perspective. I just couldn’t live without this device!

Now, both amp and speaker get:

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Click on the picture for a larger view. Aracom Amps PLX BB 18

Summary: Reminiscent of John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, the PLX18 BB is a tribute to the classic Marshall Plexi’s of yesteryear.

Pros: Looking for classic EL84 classic rock/blues tone? Look no further. This amp has tons of mojo that’s just waiting to be tapped, with two independent channels and a subtle, tube-driven tremolo that’s to die for!

Cons: Tiny nit, but the stock speaker – Eminence Red Coat Red Fang – is voiced way to brightly for this amp. For cleans, it’s great, but creates a bit of fizz when you’ve got it cranked.

Features:

General (from the Aracom site)

– On/Off Switch
– Standby Switch
– Indicator Lamp
– Custom Heavy Duty
Aluminum Chassis
– Impedance Switch:
4, 8, 16 ohm
– (2) Speaker Jacks
– Custom Handcrafted
Turret Board
– Handwired
– Gold Plexi Front and
Back Panels

Tremolo Channel

– Single Knob Tone Control
– Single Volume Control
– Tremolo Intensity Control
– Tremolo Speed Control
– High/Low Input Jacks
– Tremolo/Reverb Remote
– On/Off Footswitch Jack
– Reverb: Available with
optional Tube Driven
Reverb in the Combo 1×12
and 2×12 configurations.

Normal Channel

– Single Knob Tone Control
– Single Volume Control
– High/Low Input Jacks

Price: ~$1750 Direct

Tone Bone Score: 4.75 – If it weren’t for the speaker, this would get 5 Tone Bones, but I remedied that very easily by running it through either a Jensen P12N or a Red Coat “The Governor.” I dig that Governor speaker! It really brings out the best in that amp by taming the highs and adding a nice and smooth bottom end.

When you live less than half an hour from a boutique amp maker, you get to try out lots of GREAT gear. It’s so convenient to drop by Jeff’s shop or have Jeff over. He’s someone I love spending time with because we both share a passion for vintage and vintage style gear (Jeff is a passionate Les Paul collector), and we spend lots of time just talking about different kinds of gear, and especially his approach to amp building. As of late, Jeff Aragaki and Aracom Amps have gained a lot of attention in the guitar world for his incredible PRX150-Pro attenuator. And while I love what that attenuator does (it really has made my home recording late at night so much more convenient), it was his amps I fell in love with, and to date, I have three of them, having added the PLX BB 18 to my growing collection of low-wattage amps.

In Jeff’s words, the PLX BB 18 “ …is our tribute to the Marshall 18 watt Tremolo amp that was originally introduced in 1967. The term “Bluesbreaker” originated from the Marshall JTM 45 Tremolo Combo amp that Eric Clapton made famous when he was with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. While the JTM 45 Tremolo is the original “Bluesbreaker”, many people also refer to the early 50 watt and 18 watt Marshall amps with Tremolo as Bluesbreaker amps.

This amp is the elder statesman in the Aracom lineup, and while lots of attention has been paid to his latest VRX line, it was the PLX that gave Jeff his start. Unfortunately, because there are lots of classic Marshall Plexi 18 remakes on the market, the PLX BB 18 is probably his least known amp. That’s too bad because the tweaks Jeff made to the classic Marshall circuit has produced a very distinctive amp that has a mojo that’s almost visceral in its appeal.

Based upon a pair of EL84 power tubes, and an EZ81 rectifier, the PLX produces a very three-dimensional tone that’s at once in your face, but also fills the space you’re playing; and mind you, this is at fairly low levels – maybe loud conversation levels – due to squelching the output volume with the PRX150-Pro. Strike a chord or bend a note, and you can feel the tone! It’s that way with my VRX amps as well. There’s something that Jeff has discovered in building his amps that make them ooze a certain mojo.

Like all Aracom amps, the PLX18 BB is packed full of character. It’s amazing how it responds to volume knob changes and pick attack. But one thing that really strikes me about this amp is how smooth the distortion is when I crank the amp. When pushed hard, it has tons of gain and oodles of dynamics, but they’re very well-mannered. Notes are well-defined, and especially played with humbuckers, bloom nicely when you attack a string. F-in A!

How It Sounds

I got the amp this past Saturday, and I’ve been playing with it since. I spent Saturday evening and most of Sunday just getting used to it, and experimenting with different speakers. As I said, the stock speaker is a little bright (admittedly, I’m experimenting with it), but it’s also brand new, so that probably accounts for the abundance of highs. With time, that speaker will mellow out. But as I wanted to use the amp right away, I ran it through my custom 1 X 12 cab with a Jensen P12N and also my Fender Hot Rod’s cab that has the Governor in it. Amazingly enough, this amp LOVES the Governor. The P12N sounds awesome (and I’m a huge fan of Alinico speakers), but the Governor seems to bring out the best qualities of this amp. Anyway, here are some clips I recorded:

  • This clip features the stock Red Fang. I’m playing my Prestige Heritage Elite (an LP copy) for the lead with the Treble pickup engaged. This is a clip from a song I’m working on called “Strutter.” I normally don’t EQ my guitar parts, but I did bleed off some of the real high-frequencies to cut down on the natural fizz.
  • This next song is called “Plexi Lullaby” because it reminded me of a lullaby. The base rhythm track was recorded on the tremolo channel with my Heritage, then I created a second rhythm track with my Strat. The Lead is also played with my Strat. You’ll notice that you really have to listen for the trem. The tube-driven trem is killer. It’s very subtle and oh so smooth! Almost forgot! The base rhythm track was played through the stock speaker, while the Strat parts were recorded through a P12N, and no EQ was applied to any of the parts.
  • Finally, here’s a simple track I recorded just with my Strat for both parts, running the PLX18 BB through the Governor. This in the drive or “normal” channel of the amp with it cranked up to about 3pm, which is almost full out. To achieve the cleans, I just used a light touch, and played it finger style. I picked the Lead so I could get some occasional grind sneaking in:

I really love the tone on the last clip. The cleans it produces just make me close my eyes and play; which is pretty much what I did when recording the lead part. Just hearing how the chords just rang was so inspiring! The amp the entire time was just on the edge of breakup – it’s so expressive! I just added a touch of room reverb in the mix, but the guitars were all recorded completely raw. I didn’t do any adjustments.

Overall Impressions

I know, I say this quite a bit about Aracom amps, but I LOVE THIS AMP! As you can hear from the clips, it has an abundance of character. Jeff has recommended a few times that I try some NOS tubes with it, as all the pre-amp and power tubes are all JJ’s. But I’ve resisted because it just sounds great with the stock tubes. As I told him, “I know, I’ve got some NOS tubes on hand, but there’s no reason to put them in there. It sounds great with the JJ’s.” I may eventually do that, but for now, I won’t replace the tubes until they start getting dull.

The PLX18 BB yet another one hit out of the ballpark by the humble genius, Jeff Aragaki!

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I had an interesting conversation with a friend today regarding the difference between overdrive and distortion. Talk about two terms that are bandied about interchangeably in the guitar world! If you ask ten different guitarists the difference between them you’ll get ten different answers. But a common theme you’ll hear is what each sounds like; in other words, you’ll get a much more qualitative description as opposed to a quantitative description. What I’ve been after is a much more objective, quantitative description of each, but not necessarily too technical. So after talking about one versus the other, I decided to write down what we discussed, and throw my two-cents into the mix.

First, let’s look at the two terms, but from the perspective of an amplifier. The simplest explanation I could come up with is that overdrive, or in audiophile terms, over-powering, occurs when input gain exceeds the capacity of a device to handle the amount of gain thrown at it; in our case, a tube. What happens is that the smooth waveform that goes into the device gets “clipped” because the device’s input capacity is less than what is being thrown at it. Sonically, we perceive the result of this clipping as distortion. The higher the amplitude of the wave, the greater amount of distortion we hear.

But what about pedals? I’ll get to that in a bit, but I wanted to take the time to clarify these terms. There’s been a lot of confusion about these two terms because they’re used so loosely, and oftentimes interchangeably. For me, I’ll stick with the audiophile’s perspective of overdrive in that distortion is the result of overdrive or over-powering an amplification device. A way to think about overdrive vs. distortion is that overdrive happens in the front-end (what you put in), while distortion happens on the back-end (what you hear).

But here’s where we get into a bit of murky territory, especially with pedals. Strictly speaking, if we’re talking about overdrive as simply overpowering the front-end of an amp to make the tubes clip, the only pedal that is technically an overdrive is a boost pedal that takes your guitar’s signal and ups it voltage. But lots of manufacturers call their pedals overdrive pedals. In reality, all of those are distortion pedals as they include an internal clipping circuit which is overdriven into distortion – this includes the venerable Tube Screamer. OMG! Sacrilege!

So how do you tell the difference? That’s why I said we get into murky territory with respect to pedals, but as a rule of thumb, a distortion pedal will create a distorted sound irrespective of the amp. In other words, it’ll clip on its own. Put it front of the clean channel of an amp, switch it on, and it’ll create distortion. However, many, if not most, “distortion” pedals also provide a bit of gain boost to overdrive an amp. That’s where it gets murky, as most of the pedals termed “overdrive pedal” function as a combination of both overdrive AND distortion.

There are no real hard and fast rules, but in general, pedals that are commonly known as overdrive pedals (Tube Screamer, etc.) employ what’s called a “soft-clipping” circuit or transistor, where only a small portion of the input signal is clipped. Most distortion pedals employ a “hard-clipping” device to severely clip the input signal to get that “square wave” tone. But as I said, there are no hard and fast rules. Here’s an image that nicely describes the differences in the waveforms between soft-clipping and hard-clipping devices:

Picture courtesy of GM Arts

Sonic Differences Between Overdrive and Distortion Pedals

Many people have asked me over the years if there is a sonic difference between overdrive and distortion pedals. Having tested several of these pedals over the years, I hate to sound ambiguous, but from a practical standpoint, in some cases, it’s simply too hard to tell. For instance, if I crank up my Timmy’s gain then add a bunch of volume to slam the front-end of my amp, I get a lot of crunchy distortion out of my speaker. Moreover, I get a bit of compression and sustain and it “feels” like I’m playing through a distortion box. On the other hand, if I take my EWS Little Brute Drive and turn the gain knob to about 10 am, I get a similar sounding distortion with a similar feel – even though it’s a hard clipping device! They’re tonally a little different as the EWS adds a bit of low-end punch, but nevertheless, sonically and feel-wise, they’re extremely close.

But there does exist a difference, and that is in output volume. When I do what I do with my Timmy to get that hard distortion sound, I have to use an attenuator because all the input gain creates A LOT of volume, so I attenuate the output so I can keep the volume at a manageable level. But with my EWS Little Brute Drive, because it’s a distortion pedal, it will clip irrespective of the amp, plus I set its output volume to unity. I can set my amp to any volume, then switch the pedal on to get my overdrive-like sound.  I actually do this with the Little Brute Drive a lot when I don’t want to lug my attenuator to a gig.

So yes, you can set up an overdrive or a distortion pedal to make it difficult to tell the difference, but in general terms, with a hard-clipping device, you’ll experience a lot more compression than with a soft-clipping device. The tone will feel “squishy” with very little dynamics. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, because sometimes that’s what you want. Overdrive pedals, on the other hand, because they don’t produce a square wave, will feel a lot more “open” and dynamic. There will be a bit of compression at higher gain levels, but rarely will you get to the order of compression that a distortion box will make.

Gain vs. Volume

Image courtesy of Sweetwater.com

Unfortunately, this is yet another area where we get into murky territory, and where a lot of people confuse the two. So to start out, let’s just put it simply: Gain is input; volume is output.

To provide a bit more clarity, think about the function of an amp as a two-stage device. The first stage takes the relatively weak signal from your instrument, then passes it on to the second stage and amplifies the signal to produce the sound.

The first stage of an amp is called the preamp. The signal passed through the preamp is called Gain. The level of gain will have a direct effect on the volume of your amp. Typically, the more gain you introduce, the higher your volume. BUT, that said, higher and higher levels of gain will have a lesser and lesser effect on volume, as the pre-amp reaches its capacity to handle the amount of signal passed to it (commonly called saturation), and will max out sending all it can handle to the second stage or power amp.

Think of the power amp as the stage that controls the output strength of your sound, or volume, if you will. It works similarly to the pre-amp in that the more signal you throw at it, the louder your volume. Some amps come with a Master Volume. Think of it as a valve mechanism that controls the amount of signal that is allowed to pass into the power amp. When it’s wide open, all the preamp signal will pass through to the power amp. For amps without a master volume, the amount of preamp signal allowed to pass to the power amp is set by the builder.

So what does this have to do with pedals? If you look at the picture above, whether labeled or not, all come equipped with both a Gain (or Drive) and a Volume (or Level) knob. These work pretty much the same way as Gain and Master knobs on an amp. The Volume knob controls how much pedal signal will be sent to your amp’s preamp. That could be enough signal to saturate your preamp which will overdrive it into clipping and create distortion. Combined with a distorted sound from the pedal, this could – and in many cases does – create a very pleasing mix of distortion sounds.

So which kind of pedal to choose?

The pat answer is it depends on what you’re after with respect to your distorted tone. I know that this is a rather ambiguous statement, but again, there are no hard and fast rules. In the end, you should choose a pedal based on what sounds good to you. But here are a couple of guidelines:

  • If you have a tube amp, and just want distortion purely from overdriving the tubes, then a booster makes sense. There are several kinds of boosters. Some boost only a certain frequency range, like a Fat boost that boosts the lower frequencies. I personally prefer a clean, transparent boost that has a flat frequency response so that the distortion that occurs is my amp’s tone. I typically use a booster in conjunction with my amp set just at the edge of breakup, so when I switch it on, not only will I get a volume boost, I’ll overdrive the pre-amp tubes; and depending on how much gain I throw at the amp, I’ll get the power tubes working as well. Here’s a trick to try: If you have an effects loop, place the booster as the last pedal in your effects loop. When switched on, it will boost the gain going into your power tubes to saturate them. You don’t get a huge volume boost, especially if the power tubes are close to saturation, but you do get a bit of a kick. I learned that from Gene Baker, who does that in his rig.
  • If you want to add a bit of color and overdrive your amp, then a soft-clipping pedal like a Tube Screamer works quite well. Tube Screamer-type pedals typically give you a mid-range boost that results in a much warmer and smoother distortion. Many also add sustain and a bit of compression to simulate power tube saturation at any volume. My Tone Freak Effects Abunai 2 is exceptional in this department. Then there are others, like the EHX Soul Food that add a bit color but interact well with the front-end of an amp. But that said, there are some like my beloved Timmy Overdrive that are transparent. They’ll give you the gain and boost but will not color your sound (Note: that you’ll still have to set up the pedal’s.
  • If you want to get a distorted tone at any volume, then a distortion pedal is the way to go. There are lots of these on the market. My personal favorite (and the one I own) is the EWS Little Brute Drive. It’s a half-size pedal with a single knob, but it will give you TONS of distortion at any volume. I normally use it for leads, as it gives just a few dB of gain, but gives me all the distortion I need to get a great screaming tone! It also colors with a fat bottom end which makes leads sound beefy.
  • Then if a distortion pedal still doesn’t provide enough gain for you and you need to get a hard-clipped, super-squishy, compressed distortion, then the fuzz will get you there. I call fuzz “ugly dog” distortion. To me it’s like an ugly dog that you look at and say, “holy s$%t,” but it has personality, so you can’t help but love it. Can’t say I’ve ever been into fuzz, but I’ve spoken to lots of players who use it all the time, and they love it!

You can also chain overdrive and distortion effects to great success. I do this quite a bit because you get colors that you can’t get with just your amp. One thing that I do regularly is to use an overdrive pedal to push my amp hard, then when I want to get more tube compression and sustain, I slam the front-end with a booster (which is the last pedal in my chain). This doesn’t result in a volume boost because the tubes are already saturated, but you do get much more high-gain sound, and that can really work with solos.

Again, there are no hard and fast rules. You have to play a lot of them to find your sweet spot. But that’s half the fun of it!

More Overdrive Murkiness…

I referred to my Timmy above as a “transparent” overdrive. There’s a lot of debate about transparency, but suffice it to say that while technically distortion is color, transparent overdrives are those that once their EQ is set up to match the EQ setting on your amp, they will not add any other “color” than distortion. On the other hand, once you set up a non-transparent pedal’s EQ, it will still add its own tonal characteristics to color your tone. In practical terms, though, transparent overdrives fall more into the booster arena, but it’s the EQ and internal soft-clipping circuits that still define it as an overdrive.

But further exacerbating the overdrive murkiness is that many overdrive pedals are actually purpose-built to mimic the sound of a specific overdriven amplifier. These are meant to be played through a clean channel with lots of headroom. A good example of this is the Caitlinbread Dirty Little Secret that produces classic Marshall Plexi to Super Lead tones. With a pedal like that, you just set your clean channel to purely clean and let the pedal do the overdrive work.

Note: Several articles I’ve read on this topic use the generic “overdriven amp” explanation to describe all overdrive pedals. It would be okay if they described them with respect to how the pedal responds, but more often than not, they use the term to describe the sound. Unfortunately, they completely miss the pedals that are built to be transparent. I’m not saying they’re entirely wrong, but just a little narrow in scope when you consider the overall landscape of overdrive pedals available.

Now… let’s add even more murkiness to the overdrive issue, shall we? There are some overdrives like the EHX Soul Food, which is a Klon Centaur clone, that at first blush, fall into the transparent overdrive category. So one would think that you’d set your amp at the edge of breakup, then use the pedal to push it over the edge and add its own clipping. This is a common way of using an overdrive, and it’s exactly how I use my Timmy. But even though the Soul Food wasn’t purpose-built to mimic a particular amp, I use it almost exclusively as a standalone soft-clipping device played through a clean channel. Its distortion sound is so damn sweet that I don’t want to taint it by adding clipping from my amp.

So… what you choose will be wholly dependent upon what pleases you.

Update: November 26, 2012

I ended the article three years ago with the statement that you have to play a lot of pedals for find your sweet spot. Three years later, that statement remains true. You see, in a recent article where I asked if new overdrives are relevant with so many on the market, there are some pedals that work with certain rig configurations, and some that just do not. There are also some rig configurations that work great on stage that sound absolutely horrible in the studio. I’ve been in the studio for the last few weeks (grabbing studio time where I can), and when we worked on a song where I needed some high-gain sounds, my rig just did not work! I was using my trusty DV Mark Little 40 clean, with my Timmy and the Little Brute Drive for distortion. Sounded like crap when recorded. I ended up bringing in my VHT Special 6, cranking it up all the way, and slamming it with a booster! Worked like a charm, with all the high-end character that I wanted out of that tone. So I learned a valuable lesson there.

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