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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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I’ve often extolled the virtues of a cranked amp here at GuitarGear.org and elsewhere. My belief is that when you’ve got both your pre-amp and power tubes working, you get the real character out of your amp. There’s something that happens to your tone once you get juice into your power tubes that adds a certain dynamicism and complexity that you just can’t get with just your pre-amp tubes. Unfortunately, most mere mortals, like myself, don’t normally play venues that that will allow us to crank our amps to the point where the power tubes of our amp come into play.

Take, for instance, my good buddy Phil. He’s the lead singer of a bar band called Phil ‘N The Blanks. Up until recently he was playing through a Marshall DSL100 JCM2000 100 Watt head into a Marshall 1936 2 X 12 cab. Talk about too much amp for his gigs! I ran sound for him at a gig a couple of months ago, and could only turn his volume and gain controls to about 3 each before he stepped on the band entirely; not to mention peeling faces off! Since he’d owned the DSL100, he’d never played above 5 because it was way too loud.

Recently, I lent him my Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator so he could squelched down the volume but crank up his amp. He couldn’t believe his ears! He was finally able to get the gain up in his amp where his power tubes would break up. It was like a completely different amp once he heard the cranked up tone. I had been telling him for months that there’s really nothing quite like a cranked up amp, and for the first time since he owned the amp he was able to hear for himself what I had been talking about. Before that, he was on tonal training wheels! 🙂

Ultimately, he decided against going with an attenuator, but he did a very smart thing: He purchased a low-wattage amp, the Marshall Haze MHZ15 15 Watt amp. It hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m excited for him because he’ll be able to crank that amp at a reasonable volume level, as the lower wattage amp will break up a lot earlier, and he’ll be able to reap the benefits of the response of his cranked amp!

1 Watt is LOUD!

But here’s the funny thing: 15 Watts can still be freakin’ loud when cranked! The following chart shows SPL at 1 meter vs. Wattage (I got this from the Aracom site where Jeff discusses understanding attenuation).

POWER VS. LOUDNESS CHART

Watts

SPL (db)

Loudness

0.0078

79

Passenger car at 10 (60-80dB)

0.0156

82

0.0312

85

Vacuum cleaner

0.0625

88

Major Road Noise (80-90dB)

0.125

91

Noisy factory

0.25

94

0.5

97

1

100

Jack hammer at 1m

2

103

4

106

8

109

Accelerating motorcycle at 5m

16

112

32

115

Hearing Damage (short term exposure)

64

118

Rock concert

128

121

256

124

512

127

Jet at 100 meters (110-140 dB)

1024

130

Threshold of pain

What’s amazing from the table is how loud 1 Watt is at 1 meter! It’s as loud as a jack hammer! And 0.0312 Watt is as loud a vacuum cleaner! Jeff got this information from a well-known study done in 1933 by Harvey Fletcher and W A Munson about human hearing response. For those people who say, “P-shah” to low wattage amps, just reference this chart.

Granted, there is a certain mojo about a 100 Watt amp cranked up – even a 50 Watt amp. But most people other than those playing large venues can crank their amps to experience that mojo. But in spite of that, there’s been a movement in the industry these past few years towards lower wattage amps. I think a big part of the reason for this is the improvement in PA gear over the years. Want to get your sound out there? Mic your amp. After all, all you need is stage volume so you can hear yourself. Let the sound guys project your sound out.

My buddy Vinni Smith of V-Picks does exactly that. As amazing as he is with a guitar, he gigs with a Roland Cube 30! He just gets his stage volume, then has his amp miked to get his guitar out to the audience. This dude gigs alot, and he’s living proof that you don’t need a lot of power to get perform. As long as you can get your tone, you’re golden!

Circling back to the title of this article, there really isn’t anything like the sound and feeling of a cranked amp. Especially with tube amps, when the power tubes have juice, they add all sorts of things to your tone such as compression, a different kind of breakup and even more touch sensitivity. You can get that in a couple of ways:

  1. Get an attenuator. There are several on the market, including the increasingly popular Faustine Phantom, but my bet is on the Aracom PRX150-Pro, as it takes a completely different approach to attenuation than all others. I’ve never played an attenuator as transparent is this.
  2. Get a lower wattage amp. I’m not even going to list what amps to buy as there are tons of fantastic amps – both boutique and mainstream – on the market. Just make sure you give them a listen.

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bambinoDid my weekly church gig this evening and took the Reason Bambino along. Didn’t bring a pedalboard; just a 1 X 12 cabinet and a couple of cables. I wanted to test out the amp in its pristine state, with no added accoutrements. I also wanted to test the balanced line out to see how it worked with the building’s PA.

I have to tell you, Obeid Kahn being a noted Strat guy, even though the Bambino sounds killer with a guitar with ‘buckers, this amp seems to just love a Strat. It really makes it come alive. Whether I played fingerstyle or funky, the Bambino really made my Strat sing. Well… nothing helps to inspire me to play better than great tone. Like I mentioned in my review, the tone of the 6AQ5 sits right between an EL-84 and a 6V6, and that tone seemed to bring out the best of my Strat. The cleans were classic Strat, and the drive, oh yeah, the overdrive was open and bright, and just floated in the air. I may have been in worship, but I was also in tone heaven!!!

As for the balanced line out, oh man! The tone coming through my church’s PA was great! We have a pretty nice PA system, and the tone, whether clean or dirty, didn’t sound any different than what was coming through my cab. That was a concern for me because I’ve played through amps with line outs that just didn’t sound like the amp. The Bambino’s line out is very transparent, and that’s especially important with this amp because it’ll give you plenty of volume to monitor your tone on stage, but the line out going into your PA will ensure that it’ll get out faithfully to the audience. Make no mistake. This amp may only have 8 Watts, but it has plenty of volume to be used as a stage amp. I suppose it’s another way to approach performance. Especially in a church setting where lower stage volume is critical, having the ability to keep your stage volume down but knowing that it’ll get out to your audience is just so awesome. The Bambino rocks in this department!

***Quick Update*** I just spoke with Anthony this morning and he nor Obeid didn’t anticipate the DI to be plugged directly into a PA, so he was pleasantly surprised to hear my application of it. Note that I went direct out and into my cab at the same time! This amp has versatility written all over it!

And if ever the 8 watts isn’t enough, the Bambino can be used as a reference amp to define your tone, and with the line out, you can re-amp into another amp or a power amp to boost your output power. I’ve tried this, and it works great. I can’t wait until I get to try this at a real gig!

So what’s the verdict? The Bambino rocks – plain and simple.

To get a Bambino…

I don’t think Anthony and Obeid anticipated the popularity of the Bambino, and the positive response has been enormous. If you’re interested in getting this $699 tone monster, contact the guys directly either through e-mail at info@reasonamps.com. They also hang out at the Gear Page (http://www.thegearpage.net/board). Search for “bambino” or find the users “Reason” or “OKahn” and send a private message. There will probably be a bit of a wait time to get the amp as it has create quite a buzz and they’re already getting orders. The amp is just out of prototype and review for goodness’ sake! It’s amazing!

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Steve Ray Vaughn
Ahhh… the venerable SRV in a classic guitarists pose. I used to think that was just something rock stars did for publicity shots, and that the poses were contrived. But then as I’ve delved more and more deeply into improvisation, I’ve realized it’s not contrived at all. That kind of pose or expression is all part of what can be called “gettin’ in the zone.” The Zen masters call the “the zone” the state of satori, where thought and action are one; where your consciousness is at a height where whatever enters your mind you do. From the perspective of playing guitar, the awareness of what your body is actually doing is lost. Your focus is entirely on expressing the music you’re playing.

For instance, have you ever been playing one day and just get into the groove of a song, close your eyes, and just let your fingers do the talking? You’re completely aware of the song, but that’s pretty much all you’re aware of; and when you play, it’s pure expression. I had recently had this experience. I was playing on top of a simple chord progression in D, and the song came to a part where I had a rather long lead break. A few years ago, I would’ve been terrified to do play such a long solo, but I’ve really started to get comfortable with my playing to handle something like this. Luckily for me, it was not a fast song. 🙂 But in any case, after the first few bars, I got into this groove where I didn’t worry about technique nor worry about how I was playing a phrase. I just played. It was pure expression.

After the gig, a few people came up to me and said that when I was playing, I had this look of pure rapture on my face. I replied, “Really? I thought I was just playing. Gawd, I hope I didn’t look like a poser weenie…” One of the folks was a guitarist and told me that it was genuine. He said, “Dude, you were in your own world.” I just chuckled because I was totally unaware of my posture or body language. I was completely focused on playing. I was really in the zone.

I think a lot of my latest inspiration is that I now have gear that gives me the tone that I’ve been after for awhile, and while I realize that 90% of your tone comes from your hands, having gear that facilitates your playing just adds to your inspiration. For me, I’m playing what I believe to be the absolutely perfect amp in my Aracom VRX22. The cleans are absolutely spectacular on any guitar I play with it, and that clean channel is the most pedal-friendly channel I’ve ever played. The drive channel on that just sings and sustains beautifully. I know, I know… I rave about this amp a lot, but I’ve searched high and low for an amp like this, and now that I’ve found it, it’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven!

I’d be interested in hearing your “in the zone” experiences. Feel free to share ’em!

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I admit it: I’m an incurable GEAR SLUT! I jones for vintage and vintage style gear, as the music I play leans toward the blues and classic rock. And to satisfy that never-ending craving, I pore over the Internet and various magazines in search of all sorts of gear; hence, the existence of GuitarGear.org where I share with you, dear reader, the things that I come across.

Now in my search for gear, I occasionally buy things. They tend to be vintage-style modern gear because I just don’t have the money to buy real vintage gear; and that usually means I gravitate towards boutique gear; but not just any boutique gear. Remember, I don’t usually have all that much money to afford the real high-end stuff, so I spend a lot of my scouring my information resources to find boutique gear that I can afford. That’s what gravitated me towards Aracom Amps.

When I saw the price of a VRX series amp, my jaw dropped! Here was a hand-wired, vintage-style tube amp for $895!!! When I finally hooked up with Jeff Aragaki (founder of Aracom), and got a chance to play the VRX18, he shared that one of the ways he was able to keep the cost down was by using a solid-state sag simulating rectifier circuit. When I heard the words “solid-state,” the purist in me started reeling a bit. But then that amp sounded so freakin’ good that I didn’t give a flying you-know-what about the rectifier!

And that’s the point of this article. When you’re looking for and buying gear, don’t let yourself be swayed by an instrument’s or equipment’s pedigree or “all-tubeness” or lack thereof. LISTEN to the fuckin’ thing, and see if it turns you on! If it sounds good, and it works for YOU, then that’s all that matters, in my not so humble opinion on the subject. 🙂 If I had let the purist in me take over, I would’ve never ended up with my VRX22! And for the record, I’ve listened to many, many, many amps, with and without tube rectifiers, and the circuit that Jeff Aragaki employs in the VRX series simulates the sag of a rectifier tube so well, I can’t tell the difference. And if there is one, it’s probably so minute that it doesn’t matter anyway. I’ll put that amp up against any other boutique amp in the same wattage range, and it’ll sound just as good, if not better. And I paid less than half the price of a similarly configured amp!

Give the following clip a listen. I’m playing my Strat plugged straight into the clean channel of the VRX22. In some sections you could swear that the amp has a reverb, but that’s the solid-state rectifier simulating the sag of a tube rectifier. Also, this is the raw recording of the amp: No EQ, no filtering. The master volume was flat out, with the gain control around midway. My mic was about about 10″ away pointed directly at the center of the speaker cone.

I originally recorded that clip with my Prestige Heritage Elite. But that guitar has so much inherent sustain, it would’ve been cheating. 🙂 A Strat on the other hand doesn’t have that much sustain, so it brings out the sustaining quality of the amp much better. The result is just amazing.

And as to the tube vs. solid state rectifier issue, at least in the Aracom VRX series, it doesn’t make one whit of difference, especially when you’re playing live at gig levels. When I’m gigging, I almost never use reverb unless it’s a song where I can really isolate my guitar. Sag gives the effect of reverb, but at loud gig levels, you’ll never hear it.

Another great example of buying what sounds good to you is my friend Vinni Smith of V-Picks. That dude is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever known, and he gigs all the time! You know what he plays through? A freakin’ Roland Cube 30 cranked all the way up and miked into the PA. When he told me that, I almost flipped. Here was a true pro guitarist,  playing through a $200 amp!

So don’t be taken in by pedigree. Buy what sounds good to you, and what you can make sound good. After all, 90% of your tone is in your hands.

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Gear-aholic. Tone Freak. Gear Maniac. At least that is what I have been called. I like to think of myself as a “Tone Crusader.”

I comb the ethers in search of implements to try to catch the unicorn called “Tone.” And since tone has so many faces, I need different kinds tools to help me catch the unicorn.  Thus, I have an arsenal of axes, both custom and commonly available; a bank of sound amplification devices to announce my presence with special foot pedals to alter my sound to affect a different response.

I spend hours upon hours developing and honing my skills, and learning how to most effectively use my tools. I am a warrior who must constantly be at the ready to perform.

And like the Crusaders of old, my quest for the tone unicorn is a life-long pursuit that has been fraught with both times of extreme joy and with days of dark dispair. But despite its ups and downs, I cannot even begin to imagine abandoning this pursuit! I’ve seen the unicorn! I have even come close to touching it! And until I do touch it, I will never give up. Never!!!

I fully realize that I may go to my grave without ever catching the unicorn. But it is not the goal that matters to me in any case; it is the journey that matters.

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Stuck in a Rut

…but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel… At least I hope so. 🙂

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in kind of a rut with writing music. I’ve got eight songs for my new record, which I recorded pretty regularly over the course of about three months. And it wasn’t just eight songs I wrote. I wrote and recorded about 20 other songs before deciding on the ones that made the final cut. The process was incredible! A song would come to me, I’d grab my guitar or sit at the piano, and in a relatively short amount of time, I’d have a song. Then I’d spark up my DAW, and record a raw piece to make sure I captured it. No sweat.

But as soon as Christmas season hit, it seems that the stress of getting stuff done at work before taking a vacaction, then Christmas itself just sucked the creative juices out of me. Okay, I’ve written some jam tracks and recorded some short snippets of songs, but to date, I really haven’t gotten the inspiration to write a full song. But in spite of that, I’m feeling really positive as there is a bright side to this lack of creative energy.

As you know, I’ve lately been driven to be more academic about what I’m playing; partly because I want to be able to effectively teach what I’m learning, but also because I just want to be a better player. So in lieu of writing music, I’ve been working on my improv skills, and I’ve been really happy with the progress I’ve been making! All this practice is just making me a better player, and that is inspiring in and of itself!

For instance, as many may know, one of my regular gigs is to play at church. Before any naysayers start ripping me about playing at church, understand this: Do a worship service of ANY kind poses particular challenges. For instance, you can’t just rock out all your songs or pick music that is always up-tempo. Worship services need to take people through an emotion journey with respect to the music. Typically, the beginning and the ending songs are pretty upbeat, while the middle songs are much more subdued or, if you do have a more upbeat song, you don’t go all out and rock. The idea is that the music is not the focus, the worship experience is, and the music you play needs to enhance that. Furthermore, because it’s in a church, you can’t play at real loud volumes the entire time. As I mentioned above, you can get away with it at the beginning and the end, but even in those spots, you can’t really play at club or concert levels.

Sounds a bit constraining, doesn’t it? I’ve been gigging for years, and each type of venue poses its own particular limitations. The trick is to work around those limitations so that you can be as expressive as you can be.

All that said, considering the constraints, last night’s service was awesome! To add to our normal volume constraints though, I was missing both a drummer and a bassist, and all we had were two other guitarists besides me, one of which just started playing with us that day. So it was particularly challenging because being the most experienced guitarist put holding down the rhythm to the songs on me. But that was the cool thing. All the work I’ve been doing on my technique has allowed me to so much more than just strumming chords, adding little runs or double adorning some chords with arpeggios or arpeggiated double-stops. This is stuff that I couldn’t do six months ago! And despite not really being able to do any leads, it didn’t matter, I felt totally inspired!

So yes, there is a bright side to this rut. At least I can still play… 🙂

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