Archive for the ‘tubes’ Category

If you read this blog with regularity, you know that I love NOS tubes. Who knows? Maybe I’m being a cork-sniffer, but the significant impact NOS tubes have had on my amps has led me to preferring them over new production tubes. Unfortunately, NOS tubes are getting scarcer and scarcer, so I suppose that eventually I’ll  have to get new production tubes.

Now a company that I’ve tended to steer away from is Groove Tubes, mainly because they’re just re-labeler of various OEM tubes. They just measure voltage, match ’em up, relabel them and sell them as their brand. Nothing wrong with that, but I haven’t met a Groove Tubes tube that I’ve liked, until I discovered the Groove Tubes GT-6L6GE Re-issues.

Before I go on, I should clarify that I’m not talking about the current production 6L6GE’s, which are assembled overseas. The tubes I’m talking about were made in the USA up until about 2003, as far as I can tell.

What makes these tubes special is that they’re constructed of NOS materials (except the glass), and to the same specs as the original GE 6L6’s of old. Plus they were constructed in Southern California, so the quality is incredible. These tubes rock! To be honest, I’m not sure of all the details of their production, but I got the information from Brent Jesse @ audiotubes.com who recommended them to me.

I bought two sets so I could have a spare set, and have been in tonal heaven with my Hot Rod Deluxe! The cleans are lush and deep, and the overdrive is creamy smooth. I have other GE power tubes, and I’ve gotten used to their smooth distortion. These GT-6L6GE’s are no exception! In addition to their smooth breakup, they also don’t compress much, which is another thing I just dig. I prefer a more open distortion.

I compared these to both JJ’s and regular Groove Tube 6L6GT’s, and these just blow them away. The JJ’s and GT’s have nice, clear cleans, but forget about their tone when cranked up. The tone is harsh and gritty, even if I bias them a little hotter than spec; whereas the 6L6GE’s remind me of the breakup I get from my Plexi clone – without hot biasing! Amazing!

As these are no longer in production (don’t confuse these with the new 6L6GE’s), they’re a bit more expensive than the new production 6L6GE’s; $80 per pair as opposed to $55-$58 a pair. And because they have the same labeling as the new ones, it’s hard to tell them apart. So I recommend that if you want to get a pair, get them from a source you trust. As I mentioned, I get them from Brent Jesse Recording and Audio, and having purchased several tubes from him, I trust him implicitly.

All that said, I will be getting a set of the new production tubes to make a comparison, as they are also made with NOS materials, though assembled overseas. Who knows? They may just sound killer as well!

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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.

Related Articles

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Mullard Zaerix 12AX7Conventional tube-amp wisdom states that you get the most bang for your buck by replacing your pre-amp tubes. I’ve been a believer of this for quite awhile, and have tried out all sorts of pre-amp tubes in my amps over the years. A couple of days ago, I wrote that I had installed a new Mullard ECC83 (12AX7) into my Aracom VRX22. This particular Mullard is a Zaerix-labled ECC83 that probably came from the GDR (I didn’t look at the numbers – I really don’t care, for that matter). All I know is that it made a HUGE difference in the way my amp sounds. The overdrive instantly became smoother and more focused without top-end artifacts, and the notes are still very defined even at high overdrive settings on my amp.

The clip below says it all. I recorded this clip playing in the bridge pick up of Goldie, plugged straight into the VRX22, which then fed into the ever-so-awesome Aracom PRX15-Pro attenuator. The amp’s master, tone, and volume knobs were all set at 6 (about 2pm on the amp), and the clip was recorded at bedroom level!

To my ears, the VRX22 sounds like a much bigger amp than its 22 Watts! I’m really in tonal heaven right now!

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Just put in a re-labeled 1960’s-era Mullard ECC83 into my Aracom VRX22 this afternoon. I had a JJ 12AX7 in there, and make no bones about it; that’s a great pre-amp tube. But the difference in tone between the two is immense. Where my JJ had a great tone, one thing that I noticed was that the highs tended to be rather harsh when the tube was overdrive, and I found myself turning my Tone knob left of center – a lot – to bleed off some of the highs.

But after I installed the Mullard, I was absolutely blown away! The overdrive seemed so much more focused, with zero high-end harshness. It was some of the smoothest overdrive I’ve heard, and definitely the smoothest the VRX22 has sounded since I got it. That’s saying quite a bit because I love the tone of this amp immensely, even without the NOS Mullard. Which brings me to the crux of this entry…

As a tube amp aficionado, I’ve gone through lots of pre-amp tubes, and almost invariably, I’ve gravitated towards NOS tubes to get the tone I like. Some people I’ve spoken to say it’s all hype but, at least to me, it’s not. I suppose for some types of tubes, there’s not much of a difference. For instance, I almost invariably use JJ’s for power tubes because they just sound great to me. They’re well-made, and run pretty hot, and they break up nicely.

But with respect to pre-amp tubes, I’ve found a marked difference between NOS and new tubes. I love Mullard and JAN Phillips tubes for pre-amp tubes. They’re just so smooth sounding, smoother than all the new make tubes I’ve played. Plus, they were made during a time when most electronic devices were run with tubes, so the build expertise, equipment and materials for making tubes was abundant. According to my friend Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps, the alloys used in NOS tubes are not as readily available nowadays, and that could account for the difference in tone. Not sure if this is true, but it certainly makes sense. The only drawback is the price. That Mullard sells for $129 retail, and that is by no means inexpensive.

But I look at buying NOS tubes very much like buying a great pair of shoes. For instance, I spend almost $200 a pair for my everyday shoes. These are absolutely comfortable, and not only that they last a long time because they’re constructed so well. In fact, it takes me about 4-5 years to really wear them out. This in contrast to lower priced shoes that I’ve worn out within a few months. After a long period of time, I’ll spend more on the cheap shoes. A better case is my father. His shoes cost at least $500. But they last almost 20 years! He just gets them resoled every few years until the shoe repair guy says that it’s not worth it.

NOS tubes are similar. I’ve had the same NOS tubes in my Hot Rod Deluxe for almost five years, and they still sound great! I play that amp a lot. On the other hand, the new Tung-Sol tubes I put in another amp lasted all of two months before they started to lose their character, with one becoming microphonic. Granted, they’re fairly inexpensive tubes and they sound great, but if I have to shell out $25 every couple of months, that starts to add up. NOS tubes, especially the mil-spec tubes that I prefer were made for military usage, which means they had to be well-built and durable. That’s a huge advantage NOS tubes have over newer tubes.

Jeff also shared a story with me today about a friend of his who used to be stationed on an aircraft carrier. He was telling Jeff that when the ship replaced electronic components, they’d dump boxes of tubes – good ones, mind you – over the side of the ship. So the ocean has NOS tubes littering its bottom.

In any case, please do not just take me at my word! 🙂 This is simply my perception based upon my experience. In the end, as I am often apt to mention, you’re judge of what sounds pleasing to you. So only buy what makes sense to you!

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Effectrode has long been known for its tube-driven effects such as the Tube Vibe. But they’ve just released a new overdrive pedal with three tubes that give you up to six gain stages of drive! OMG! Talk about saturation city! Note that this pedal ain’t cheap at $399, but if it delivers on what appears to be very promising features, I might be hard-pressed not to take a serious look at this pedal. It’ll be interesting what people say about this pedal.

Here’s the description of from the Effectrode site:

The Tube Drive, pure class-A tube overdrive pedal featuring three triode vacuum tubes for a total of six gain stages. The drive knob simultaneously controls the gain of all cascaded stages so that they progressively clip allowing the Tube Drive to respond empathically to your pick attack with a graceful breakup characteristic. At lower gain settings this pedal excels at producing authentic blues and mild break-up to add some “dirt” to playing whilst always sounding smooth and musical. Pushing the drive a little higher produces the classic 70’s overdriven tube amp tone and at even higher gains the sound becomes rich in harmonic content without masking the the natural sound of your guitar and amplifier. The Tube Drive allows you to effortlessly climb the gain curve to create sustaining, super-saturated lead tones, inspire you and power your solos beyond escape velocity, through the stratocastersphere soaring into high energy orbit!


  • All Tube gain circuitry: 100% analog, class-A, clipping circuitry based on three cascaded tubes. No silicon in the signal path – guaranteed. This topology gives the Tube Drive fine control over a wide range of gain characteristics from mild breakup to creamy saturation.
  • Bax-Stack “active” tube tone control: The Tube Drive is the only overdrive with an active tube tone control. The Bax-Stack is a real treble boost (and cut) circuit with zero insertion loss, unlike passive tone stacks which can only remove frequency content (“tone-sucking”). The tone range is optimized to work over important frequencies essential for mellow jazz tones to some serious crunch.
  • Low-end coutour switch: Active low boost for a warmer, richer sound. Especially useful with single coil pickups to thicken the sound or when playing at low volumes to compensate for loudness.
  • Orange L.E.D.: Indicates when pedal is engaged.

Very cool! But even cooler are the sound samples. Check ’em out!!!

335 solo

Strat Solo

YYZ solo



Mild Breakup

Strat Drive

Crunch Too!

Red Barchetta


Description and sound clips courtesy of Effectrode Pedals.

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Plush Verbrator

Plush Verbrator

I dig interesting pedals. in my search for a decent reverb, I came across the Plush Verberator that is a tube-driven effects loop and a 24-bit reverb in one pedal. I’m not too sure about the effects loop bit, but the reverb sounds really awesome. Here’s the product description from the Plush site:

The Verbrator® is a new multipurpose pedal which combines an all-tube effects loop with a studio grade reverb featuring a 32-Khz clock speed for full 16-K audio bandwidth. The Verbrator® is our most innovative pedal offering to date. It’s an effects loop, it’s a reverb, it’s both!

Unlike other “tube pedals,” the Verbrator® power supply features a unique regulated switching technology that takes the incoming 9 volts and converts it up to the optimal high voltage a tube really needs to operate best. In addition, a 6-volt DC regulator provides consistent clean DC power for the tube filament assuring lowest noise and consistent performance despite any changes to incoming line voltage.

The Verbrator® can be used as a pedal on a pedal board as a reverb pedal. It features a level control and decay control allowing you to have a short medium or long decay reverb algorithm. It can also be used as a tube buffer to convert an incoming high impedance signal to a low impedance for long cable runs or driving a pedal board. The recovery (gain) stage can be used to boost the level of a guitar or pedal board with a true tube audio stage. It provides a warm sweet utility gain stage with a multitude of uses.

The effects loop portion of the pedal features a unity gain cathode follower to work with any amp that has passive preamp output – power amp input patch jacks, and not a true active effects loop like Ceriatone, Dumble, Bludotone, Brown Note, some Marshall models and others. It has a send level control and high headroom. The return portion of the loop features a high impedance input (250-K) and a low output impedance with its own level control as well. The loop can be run in series or parallel modes, and features a level adjust switch for rack or pedal style effects.

9-volt DC adaptor provided, the Verbrator® features a unique “window” showing the tube. Like all Fuchs pedals, the Verbrator® features solid cast aluminum powder coated enclosure with heat cured silk screening, dual sided heavy circuit boards, premium switches and controls, and premium electronic parts throughout.

Like I said, I’m not too sure about the effects loop part of it, but the reverb really sounds good. Check out the video below:

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

Reason SM40 Head

Reason SM40 Head

Reason Amps SM40 HeadSummary: Deep, lush cleans, with bright, ballsy and aggressive overdrive. The SM40 is a classic rocker’s wet dream come true.Pros: Touch-sensitive and expressive. The voltage sag in the 5U4 is just enough to create almost a reverb quality as the signal fades. Truly lovely sound!

Cons: None.

Price: $2195


• Output: 40 watts RMS @ 10% THD
• (4) EL84 output tubes, in Class A Cathode Biased configuration
• (2) 12ax7 preamp tubes
• 5U4 Rectifier tube
• 3 way Stack switch – Normal, Stack, Bright
• Normal channel – Volume, Tone
• Bright channel – Volume, Tone
• StackMode™ – Bright & Normal channel controls are active, Stack Volume & Hi-Cut
• Oversized extra capacity power supply
• Harmonics Switch – works in the final output stage to change the harmonic structure of the
• Power Switch
• Standby Switch
• Half-power switch
• Independent output jacks for 4,8, 16-Ohm operation
• Footswitch access to all three channels/modes

Tone Bone Rating: 5 – This is a blues and classic rock machine!!!

This review is a long time in coming as I evaluated the SM40 over a month ago, but as they say, better late than never. As many may know, I’ve had a love affair with the SM25 that the Reason guys sent me to review, and that amp will be in my rig (see my review here). In my view, very few amps can match it in versatility. It is an extremely expressive amp that is capable of producing lush, ringing cleans, to searing overdrive. And according to both Anthony Bonadio and Obeid Kahn, the founders of Reason Amps, the SM25 Combo was built specifically with versatility in mind. It is very pedal-friendly, and StackModeTM is the greatest thing since sliced bread!

But sometimes, you just don’t want or need that kind of versatility because with versatility comes compromises. For instance, the SM25’s Normal or clean channel breaks up a little earlier than you’d expect though I actually rarely if ever play at the volume so it’s a none-issue for me. Since I play a variety of styles, versatility is a key factor in my decision on an amp. But that versatility is lost on those who just don’t need it. And mind you, that’s not a bad thing. It’s merely a matter of choice, which is why you have a number of amp options to choose from with Reason Amps. Premier Guitar already covered the SM50, which gives a fair picture of the SM50’s capabilities – though I do have to take issue with Premier Guitar giving it the “Loud As Hell” award. It’s not just a noise-maker. It’s just that you’d swear the SM50 is 100 Watts as opposed to 50 Watts. It’s an extremely powerful and expressive amp with classic EL-34 goodness.

The SM40, on the other hand is a very interesting take based upon EL-84 output tubes. Where the SM25 and SM50 are based on EL-34’s in Class AB fixed-bias configuration, the SM-40 is built around two EL-84’s operating in Class A Cathode Bias configuration. Like the other Reason Amps, the SM40 has two independent channels with the trademark StackModeTM “channel,” that combines the fully amplified signals from both Normal and Bright Channels in a series with an extra gain stage, while retaining both the volume and EQ control that each channel contributes to the combination.

The Story Behind the SM40

I called the Reason guys up to shoot the breeze a bit yesterday, but to also pick their brains about the SM40, Obeid Kahn (Reason’s amp designer) and I had a great conversation about the story behind the SM40. For all intents, and purposes, the SM40 was Reason’s first production amp. Obeid had gone through several prototypes before he finally produced the SM40 which included StackMode. Previous versions had completely independent channels with separate inputs, then evolved into switching between the two, then finally evolved into connecting the two channels in a series. So the SM40 could be considered the eldest sibling in the Reason amp line and the first successful incarnation of StackMode.

How It Sounds

The SM40 is targeted at blues and classic rock players, and it definitely shows that in the way it’s voiced. Moreover, there’s something really special about the clean tone of an EL-84-based amp. It’s naturally chimey and glassy, and guitars that have that natural quality bring that tone out even more. On the Normal channel, the kind of voicing is beautiful; chimey with lots of mid-range, but not overdone. And there’s TONS of clean headroom in this channel, which makes it ideal for use with pedals. Put a booster in front of this channel, and you get that AC-30-like breakup, which is subtle and smooth. Very nice.

The Bright channel, on the other hand, is actually not that much brighter than the Normal channel. In fact, the tonal differences between Normal and Bright are so subtle that you’d think there’s no difference at all. But that’s by design. Unlike the SM25 which was built around versatility, the SM40 is a much more focused machine, which is why you only get volume and tone on any channel or mode, as opposed to the SM25 which includes a 3-band EQ on the Normal channel. The idea behind that makes sense: Players who buy this amp will mostly play a certain style of music and don’t want to be bothered tweaking knobs to dial in their sound. Not that the amp can’t be used in a variety of genres, but players who play this won’t want to stray from the general tone the SM40 produces.

Similarities between the channels aside, the real kicker for me is the StackMode “channel,” which combines Normal and Bright channels in a series, while retaining both volume and tone shaping in both channels. This really opens up a whole new pallette of tones you can produce. It’s super-expressive, and because you’re essentially working with three gain stages in a series, this mode makes the amp incredibly responsive to volume knob and attack. Dime the volume on your guitar, and you can get tons of overdrive. Back it down and pick lighter, and the tone cleans right up. In my tests of both Reason amps, StackMode was pretty much all I used, unless I was playing something where I needed a pure, glassy clean tone for which the Normal channel excels.

An interesting switch labeled Odd/Even resides on the control panel. This is a harmonics switch that works with the phase splitter in the final gain stage. The idea behind it is that at super-high gain, you start getting a “notch” type of distortion. Flipping the switch smooths that out. I actually didn’t notice that much of a difference with the switch in either Odd or Even positions, but maybe that was because I was only 3 feet from the amp, and it was cranked! 🙂 For the most part though, the switch won’t have too much of an effect until you get into really thick overdrive.

Playing It

The SM40 was tested with a Strat copy and a Saint Guitars Benchmark with humbuckers. With the Strat copy, you’re immediately taken to the roots of blues. The chimey vibe really comes out with single coils, and I found myself closing my eyes to take in the sweetness. With the Benchmark, the SM40 grew big balls of steel. Not that you’d do metal with this amp, but humbuckers make the SM40 want to growl. It’s really nice.

Overall Impressions

The SM40 is a sweet amp, and like its sibling, the SM50, it’s really made for the stage. It’s expressive and ballsy, and is meant to be played hard. As both Anthony and Obeid have both told me, this amp is made for active musicians. And while I wouldn’t want to keep people from buying it because it sounds so good, by the same token, I wouldn’t recommend it for bedroom use. You wouldn’t be able to take advantage of its full range of tones.

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