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Posts Tagged ‘amplification’

Like any gear freak, I’ve got tons of gear. Just check out the “My Rig” page, and  you’ll see what I mean. I use it all. Now while I rotate my usage of guitars, I use all my amps in the studio. But when playing out, I almost invariably go with a specific type of setup: A humbucker guitar through a vintage-Marshall-style amp; and lately and more specifically, a Les Paul through a Marshall-style amp. That tone simply speaks to me. Clean or dirty, it’s what I almost always go to in a live situation.

At my church gig yesterday, I brought along one of my favorite amps: My Aracom PLX18-BB Trem, which is a “Bluesbreaker” style 18 Watt Plexi clone with two channels and no master volume. With that amp, I usually play in the Bright channel, which is a clone of the Plexi circuitry. This is a simple channel with just one volume and one tone knob. I love this channel! I usually have the volume dimed, with the tone at about 3pm, then control the amount of breakup with my guitar’s volume knob and/or pick attack. That amp just oozes Plexi goodness, and is so incredibly dynamic. The EZ81 rectifier provides just the right amount of sag, where even with the amp dimed to the hilt, it never turns soupy or mushy due to sag. I also loaded it with NOS ’59 GE 12AX7’s in V1 and V2, then have a 60’s JAN Philips 12AT7 in V3. To compensate for the overall brightness of the amp, I loaded a kick-ass Fane Medusa 150 to bring out the bottom end. The net result is that this amp sounds A LOT bigger than its 18 Watts may imply.

Then take all that Plexi goodness and combine it with a Les Paul, and to me, that’s a recipe for rock-and-roll! 🙂

It took me several years to get my “Go-To” tone, which accounts for the gear that I’ve got from my explorations; not that I’d get rid of much of it because in the studio, having lots of gear to get different sounds is important, but for me, when I’m playing out, it’s the Les Paul/Plexi combo all the way. To my ears, there’s simply nothing like the tone that that combination produces!

So what produces your “Go-To” tone?

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Like many, I participate in various forums on the ‘Net, and I came across a plug for a fascinating article written in 1998 talking about devices that employ tubes – specifically amps and hi-end audio – and does a very good job of explaining why people gravitate towards tubed devices. Here’s the link to the article. It’s long, but worth it!

http://spectrum.ieee.org/consumer-electronics/audiovideo/the-cool-sound-of-tubes/0

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Aracom Amps VRX22 - First in the series

The Aracom VRX22 has been my primary amp for quite some time now – almost 2 years – and I’m still discovering the beauty of this wonder 22 Watt amp. It’s no small wonder that it has been my “Go-To” amp since I’ve gotten it. It sounds so killer both clean and dirty, and tonight, I realized just how great it is with pedals!

Since I’ve had the VRX22, I haven’t been using my overdrive pedals as much. I know, I used to be a real nut about overdrive pedals, and I have several. But this afternoon, I reconfigured my board, and placed my favorite drive pedals on it with the intention of using them. This included my Doodad Guitars Overdrive/Booster, Tone Freak Abunai 2, and my KASHA overdrive.

For my gig, I set the amp up in the clean channel, with the volume at a level where I’d have to dig in a bit with my Les Paul to get some grind. This would leave me with lots of headroom to work with, and not break into overdrive so early that all I get is more overdrive, and not volume.

Then I tweaked the overdrive pedals so I’d get different characters of overdrive, depending upon what I was after. I set the Doodad up for Tube Screamer like overdrive, at just over unity gain, but with the drive knocked up a bit so I’d get lots of sustain. I set the Kasha on “Classic” at just above unity gain for a more biting, trebly tone. Then I set up the Abunai 2 for a more thick, compressed overdrive.

The one thing I love about overdrive pedals is that as opposed to providing all the distortion as with a distortion pedal, they are meant to interact with the amp so what you get is a combination of distortion characteristics from both the pedal and the amp. This combination doesn’t always work so well. I’ve played many amps and some just want to overdrive by themselves. Using an overdrive pedal with those amps just muddies the tone. It’s not pretty.

Not so with the VRX22. I’ve thrown all sorts of pedals at it, and it handles them all without a hitch. It’s especially good with overdrive pedals, and in my gig, I just kept smiling because it sounded so damn great with them! And with second channel on the VRX22 that has another gain stage that acts as a built-in overdrive, I had yet another overdrive voicing to use, and I used all four either individually, or in many cases, I’d stack two or more together. And that’s a key thing with the VRX22. It can deal very well with stacked overdrives, retaining its touch sensitivity and note separation. Other amps I’ve used when stacking just can’t deal with the stacked overdrives very well.

In any case, this kick-ass amp is something you should consider. At $895, it’s simply tough to beat for a true hand-wired, boutique amp. And for those of you who already have Jeff’s PRX150-Pro or -DAG attenuator, you already know the build quality that goes into Aracom gear. It’s simply killer!

For more information on this wonderful amp, check out the VRX22 product page at Aracom’s web site!

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VHT Special 6 Combo
Summary: This is a hand-wired, solidly built tone machine that packs great features for an unbelievable price. The value proposition alone is enough to turn heads, but add superb tone to the equation and you have a winner!

Cons: None.

Features (as tested):

  • 6 Watts
  • One 6V6 Output Tube
  • One 12AX7 Preamp Tube
  • Volume and Tone Controls
  • Footswitchable Boost Mode
  • High/Low Power Switch (Pentode/Triode)
  • 10” VHT High-Sensitivity Speaker
  • 4, 8, and 16 Ohm Speaker Jacks
  • Mod-Friendly Eyelet-Type Board
  • Hand-wired In China

Price: $199 Street / $179 Street for Head

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Clean or dirty, this amp delivers the goods! The tone sweep is absolutely excellent giving you gorgeous, warm jazz cleans, to classic rock bite! Add the Hi/Lo power switch, and Push-Pull volume knob boost (also includes a footswitch), and you’ve got an amp that can live in a variety of musical genres.

About a week ago, I extolled virtues of the Marshall Class 5, and raved about how great it sounds. It’s a fantastic little amp, and I haven’t changed my opinion of it. But along came the VHT Special 6 and the game has completely changed. VHT raised the bar with Chinese-manufactured, low-cost, low-wattage amps by offering a hand-wired, super-well-built amp with fantastic features that can easily change the amp’s character for under $200 for a 1 X 10 combo.

I think the arrangements many gear manufacturers have made with overseas assemblers is great. Egnater is another example of a manufacturer doing it with great success. Design the gear here in the US, then partner with an overseas manufacturer to take advantage of their cheaper parts and labor, ensure that they meet a high standard of quality, then give the savings back to the customer. The top-of-the-line stuff can be saved for domestic production, but the stuff you want to get out to the masses can certainly be made elsewhere, and in much higher volumes and production rates. It’s a good model that many manufacturers have been following for years. I realize that I’m going to piss off some of the ultra-patriotic that will only buy stuff made in the USA; I myself prefer to buy US-made stuff, but it’s tough to argue with getting great tone for a great price, and that is EXACTLY what the VHT Special 6 and lots of other gear assembled overseas provide.

But enough toeing the political line. Let’s get into discussing the Special 6, shall we?

Fit and Finish and Features

The first thing I noticed when I first looked at the amp is how solid it looked. Picking it up revealed an amp that is no lightweight. I don’t know the exact weight, but the Special 6 is not lacking in heft. The cabinet is made of birch ply, and from what I could tell, fairly large transformers were used with the amp and those are heavy. Note that I’ve actually heard some conflicting information about the cabinet wood. Some say MDF, others say Baltic birch ply. Actually, it just doesn’t matter. The cabinet’s solid, and it works well as a resonance chamber for the speaker.

As far as cosmetics are concerned, the amp is covered in tolex with white piping around the front grille. The rear panel sports a partially open back that, like the Marshall Class 5, has a thin metal screen covering the opening. That’s a nice touch.

The control panel is super simple. You’ve got two chickenhead knobs for tone and volume, on/off switch, a three-way Hi/Lo Power / Standby switch (I dig that), and two input jacks for Lo and Hi input. The volume knob is a push-pull knob that when out, adds boost (sorry, not sure about the amount of boost). You can surmise just by these features that you can do a lot of tone shaping with this little beast. 🙂 The back panel has jacks for 4, 8, and 16 ohm speaker outs, plus a jack for switching between normal and boost.

Sound and Dynamics

Even with a 10″ speaker, the amp is capable of producing a variety of tones, from lush, Fender cleans, to ringing, AC15-like overdrive to gorgeous, smooth Plexi overdrive. I’m not kidding about this! Depending upon the pickup you’re using and where you set the tone knob, and other amp settings such as hi/lo input, pentode/triode mode, you can cover a wide range of tones! This is what is so SICK about this amp! It’s so damn versatile!

I played around with it in my studio this afternoon, getting ready to record some clips (which I’ll have in an upcoming article), and just for kicks, I unplugged the stock speaker and ran the amp out to my 2 X 12. Granted, there is a HUGE difference between a 2 X 12 and a little 10″ speaker, but in my experience, many low wattage amps still sound a little on the thin side even when going into a bigger cab; not so with the Special 6. It sounded big and ballsy; much more “big-amp-ish” than it’s diminutive power. That really came as a surprise, much like my surprise when I plugged the Reason Bambino into a big cab. It’s clear that just like the Reason guys, VHT didn’t want to just build a low-wattage amp. They wanted to build a great amp, period.

I also gigged with the amp in my weekly church gig yesterday afternoon, and it worked absolutely stellar! I kept the amp in high power mode, plugged into the high power input, set the tone and volume at 3pm each, then pulled the boost knob to activate the normal/boost footswitch. I didn’t use any effects at all as I just wanted the raw amp tones. I even tuned with my Peterson StroboClip so my signal from my guitar to the amp was completely direct. Note that even with a 10″ speaker, I still had to use an attenuator, and my trusty Aracom PRX150-Pro worked stellar with the amp.

During the gig, I mostly used the volume knob on my guitar to vary gain, whether in normal or boost mode. The amp responded so well to volume knob and pick attack. Even if I didn’t reduce the volume, and picked very lightly, I could clean up the sound. So sweet!

The only time I made any adjustments to the amp was when we did a song that I needed absolutely clean tones. I simply reduced the volume to around 11 am, then bypassed the attenuator. And the cleans were simply fantastic!

Made to Mod

Despite the fact that VHT says this amp is highly modifiable, I doubt that most people will do no more than swap tubes. I’ve seen some forum posts where people have made a couple of changes, but I’d say the majority of folks just won’t see a need to do that. But curious, for shits and giggles, I swapped out the stock 6V6 with a couple of different 50’s-era 6V6’s (GE and RCA). They each sounded beautiful as I expected, but quite frankly, they were just too smooth. The Chinese tube seems to be “hotter” and produces lots of harmonics; something my NOS tubes didn’t do. In my opinion, the Special 6 is meant to be a mini-rock machine. It won’t do really heavy stuff, but for 70’s and 80’s classic rock, it sits right in the sweet spot.

Overall Impression

I am thoroughly impressed with the VHT Special 6. Hand-wired, immensely versatile, plus fantastic tone for under $200? That’s tough to beat! And unlike other small, low-wattage amps that have only a volume and tone knob, the combination of inputs, low/hi power modes and boost make this an amp that can be used in a variety of ways. Big thumbs up, and 5 Tone Bones!

I’ll have clips in an upcoming article. Stay tuned!

Update: January 2, 2013

It has been awhile since I wrote the original article, and amazingly enough, I’m still using the Special 6. I did finally swap out tubes to 50’s era NOS for both pre-amp and power tubes, and I also swapped out the stock speaker and put in a Jensen Jet Electric Lightning. I use this amp frequently at my church gig where I don’t need a lot of volume since mic the amp and use the PA, and it is perfectly suited for that venue.

Even after all this time, I do have to say that I’m still thoroughly impressed with the tone of this little amp. When it’s cranked, and especially with the Electric Lightning speaker, the amp sounds SO much bigger than what its diminutive 6 watts would suggest. A lot of that has to do with how the speaker projects, but when cranked, that amp absolutely sings with tones of sustain and really sweet overtones. I love playing this amp with a Les Paul. The clean tones are gorgeous as well, and when I don’t hook it up to an attenuator, I just use pedals to get my distortion. From that perspective, the amp takes to pedals real well.

Finally, even with a simple, single EQ knob, the EQ works fantastically well with the amp. It’s kind of bright out of the box, so I normally just set the tone control to about 10 am. On some amps I’ve played, that muddies the tone a bit; but not with the Special 6. It simply makes the lower range stand out a bit more.

I’ve even been using the amp in the studio, over my DV Mark Little 4o and Aracom VRX’s (except where I need a heavier sound). It’s perfect for the studio.

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Peavey Classic 30 Amp

Summary: Great looks, great sound, and at a GREAT price!

Pros: Beautiful cleans with a sweet, airy reverb, and smooth overdrive tones

Cons: This is a nit, but I was a bit annoyed at the labeling of Pre- and Post- volume controls on the Lead channel. Why not just follow convention? It’s obvious that “Pre” is volume, and “Post” is master. But when I first saw it, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them until I turned the amp on.

Features (from the Peavey site):

  • 30 watts (rms) into 16 or 8 ohms
  • Four EL84s and three 12AX7s
  • 12 inch Blue Marvel® speaker
  • 2-channel preamp
  • Pre- and post-gain controls on lead channel
  • Normal volume control on clean channel
  • 3-band passive EQ (bass, middle, treble)
  • Boost switch
  • Reverb level control
  • Effects loop
  • Footswitch selectable channel switching and reverb
  • External speaker capability
  • Chrome-plated chassis
  • Classic tweed covering
  • Footswitch optional (not included)
  • Weight Unpacked: 39.50 lb(17.917 kg)
  • Weight Packed: 46.00 lb(20.865 kg)
  • Width Packed: 13″(33.02 cm)
  • Depth Packed: 21.5″(54.61 cm)
  • Height Packed: 19.25″(48.895 cm)

Price: $599 street

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Even my little nit couldn’t keep this amp from getting my top score. It’s simply a great-sounding amp!

I’ve been a big proponent of: If it sounds good to you, then brand and price don’t matter. This goes back to my very first guitar, a Yamaha FG-335 Acoustic that my dad bought me for my 18th birthday. I still have that guitar. But I remember a jam about 25 years ago I was having with my brother at a party. We were sitting in our living room, and we pulled out our guitars to have a jam and singalong. When I got my guitar out of its case, my brother remarked facetiously upon seeing its worn condition, “Dude, you should turn that into a beach guitar.” I just looked at him blankly and replied, “Nope. It may not look like much, but it has a great sound. Why the f&%k would I want to trash it? I’ll never get rid of this guitar!” Ahh… brotherly competition. 🙂 But I digress…

The point of me mentioning that is that nowadays with boutique gear being all the rage with “tube” this, “mustard cap” that, “hand-wired” this, etc., it’s so easy to dismiss some excellent gear that sounds absolutely KILLER! If you can get said killer-sounding gear at a fantastic price, then that’s even better. Now I admit that I have some expensive gear, but not once have I purchased gear because of a name or because someone told me to buy something because they love it. I suppose with this blog you might accuse me of doing just that, but I always suggest people try things out for themselves before making any buying decisions. Damn! Again I digress! Let’s get on the with the review, shall we?

Fit and Finish

Talk about vintage mojo! The first time I saw this amp in a local shop, I was stunned by its looks. With its vintage-style front panel and dark brown cloth grille, and tweed covering with chrome-plated corner protectors; what’s not to like? Weight-wise, at 40 lbs, it’s not light, but it’s also not a behemoth that you can’t lug easily into a gig. And don’t let the small size of its cabinet fool you: It’s quite resonant, but more importantly, its size doesn’t make it unweildy in the slightest. Simply put, the Classic 30 just plain looks great!

How It Sounds

In my test, I used a Squier Classic Vibe Tele 50’s, a Custom Shop Strat, and a Les Paul Standard. I always start out all my tests with the amp clean, and playing finger-style. No matter what guitar I used, the cleans were absolutely spectacular. I love EL84 cleans. They’re sparkly and chimey, and the Classic 30 simply delivered that EL84 clean goodness! The single coils sounded chimey as expected, but I totally dug the cleans with the LP! Adding a bit of grease with the reverb brought out the  lush, deep tones of the Les Paul nicely. I believe the reverb is a digital reverb, but who the hell cares? It sounds incredible! I guess that’s the point I was trying to make above. If something works well, it doesn’t matter what it’s made of.

As far as overdrive is concerned, as its name implies, the Classic 30 isn’t going to get you modern high-gain overdrive tones, but there’s tons of overdrive on tap. Once I dialed in the Pre and Post volume control balances, I was able to get nice overdrive tones that weren’t at all harsh, no matter how hard I pushed the amp. Since I was in a shop, I didn’t get a chance to record clips, but here are some clips from Peavey:

Clean

Clean, Reverb

Channel 2 Flat

Channel 2 Preamp

Channel 2 Boost

As you heard, great tones out of this little beastie. Even completely dimed, you don’t get over the top overdrive, but for classic rock and blues, this is a GREAT amp. That Blue Marvel 12″ speaker works great in this cab!

Overall Impressions

At $599, this amp looks and sounds as good as many boutique amps I’ve played. I love this amp, and it’s definitely going to be added to my amp collection. 🙂 I didn’t get to try out the effects loop, but I love the fact that it has one. It just adds to its versatility. If you’re looking for a vintage-style amp for a great price, this is definitely an amp to consider!

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…of Aracom Amplifiers. Let me tell you why:

  • Jeff is super-smart, and makes incredible devices like the PRX150-Pro.
  • Jeff’s amps are to die for. If you’re looking for anyone who “gets” the Marshall vibe, it’s Jeff. I have three of his amps, and am waiting for his upcoming JTM-45. I’ve played the prototype, which has period-correct components, down to original mustard caps, and that amp just oozes vintage Marshall goodness.
  • Jeff is a gear freak like myself; but not just any gear. He’s nutso for vintage Les Pauls and Les Paul Jr.’s – he has many.

And the last point is the problem: Because of Jeff, I’ve gotten totally hooked on Les Pauls and Les Paul-style guitars! Take, for instance, this guitar below:

Jeff dropped off this guitar at my house yesterday for me to evaluate. It’s a gorgeous, relicked ’59 Les Paul replica that has been meticulously copied by a master luthier, using old wood and proper hardware. Even the glue used is the same as the original, and the lacquer finish is not a plasticized lacquer – it’s the real deal. It doesn’t have original PAF’s, but the pickups have been wound to original output specs. The guitar’s original owner sourced the wood from a distributor specializing in high-end furniture and guitar wood, had a master luthier shape it, then sent the guitar to RS Guitar Works for finishing, and they confirmed their work with a certificate (apparently, they’re one of the best in the business for doing conversions and replica finishing). The net result? According to Jeff, this is about as close as you can get to the real deal without paying hundreds of thousands of dollars (the “cheapest” one I’ve ever seen was a slightly modded one for $275,000).

After playing with it for a couple of hours yesterday, I’m now REALLY hooked! I personally don’t know what a real ’59 sounds like, but I’ve done some research on what to expect with respect to response, dynamics, and tone. Mind you, I’m not a cork-sniffer, but all I know is that this puppy sustains for days, and the wonderful bloom that ensues from holding a note due to the resonance of the tone woods is ever-present. As for the tone, it’s absolutely gorgeous! Heavy on the upper-mids without being biting, with inspiring cleans and smooth drive.

The neck has also been “pleked” so it’s an absolute dream to play! I didn’t have to spend much time at all familiarizing myself with it. No wonder ’59’s are so highly sought-after! These were special guitars, and this replica captures everything I was expecting to feel and hear!

Circling back to why I wish I never met Jeff Aragaki, that guy gets me gassing for gear! ALL THE DAMN TIME!!! As I mentioned above, I’m hooked on vintage and vintage-style Les Paul’s because of him!

As if Jeff’s Les Paul obsession is bad enough, as I said, Jeff’s amps are to die for! He is so talented! I haven’t played an Aracom amp that I haven’t absolutely loved. And being that I get to try out all his new designs, all I can say is that this dude knows his stuff about amplifier technology and electronics! His amps rock!

With respect to his electronics genius, just look at the PRX15-Pro attenuator. Jeff has employed technology that NO ONE has employed. Other manufacturers may brag about their products and how they may have spent years working on their designs. I won’t take that away from them, but they just modified existing designs. Jeff discovered a completely different way to attenuate, and it’s no small wonder that players like Joe Satriani and Doug Doppler love this device!

Actually, I’m very glad I’ve befriended Jeff. He’s also just an all-around great guy. He’s incredibly humble and self-effacing, and his warmth and friendliness just draw you in. I guess I have to chalk up my GAS to lack of self-control. But with a friend like Jeff, it’s hard to control it. 🙂

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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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Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

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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So you want to get a tube amp, but there are literally hundreds of manufacturers, not to mention, amps on the market. That can make for a rather harrowing experience in making a choice; especially if you’re new to tube amps. Plus, there are so many amp features to contend with as well. But have no fear. It’s not as hard as it may seem on the surface as long as you take some things into account.

1. Tone is king!

The most important thing to keep in mind in your search for a tube amp is that YOUR opinion of the tone of an amp is the most important opinion of all. By all means, listen to the input of others to help guide you, but in the end, you need to make your decision based upon how good an amp sounds to YOU. To formulate an opinion, you have to play several. And for goodness sake, don’t buy anything unless you’ve heard it in person.

2. Sound clips don’t tell the whole story…

Bear in mind that sound clips are great as an initial reference, but that’s all they should be. And make sure to listen to clips that have been recorded with the raw sound of the amp; that is, the plugged straight into the amp, and no EQ on the recording medium. Be especially wary of clips of fully arranged songs where a particular amp was used because more likely than not, even if the amp was recorded straight with no pedals in the chain, the other instruments and the EQ of the song can interfere with potentially negative aspects. Nothing beats listening to an amp live or raw.

3. Higher cost doesn’t mean better

Sometimes higher cost is well, just higher cost, and it doesn’t necessarily buy you much. I’ve played some pretty expensive amps that to me sound like crap, so don’t be lured into buying an amp by its price. Also, bear in mind that some amps simply have a higher price because a well-known guitarist actually uses one.

4. Don’t jump onto the boutique wagon right away!

In your search, you’ll come across people who’ll recommend all sorts of boutique amps. Don’t jump there immediately. I recommend this mainly because a boutique amp will fix you into a certain tone or range of tones. That’s NOT a bad thing at all. It just means that they serve up a certain flavor of tone and they’re good at that; not wanting be so versatile. For instance, my Aracom PLX18-BB Trem is a great example of a fairly focused tone with its abundance of mid-range, and smooth and creamy breakup. This amp was built based upon the classic 18-Watt Marshall Plexi, which has distinctive tone and dynamics. It’s not muscular at all, and was never meant to be. Contrast that to my Aracom VRX22 which, while based upon a Marshall Plexi design is A LOT more “ballsy” with a fatter bottom end, and slightly compressed overdrive. As a foot-switchable 2-channel amp, it is much more versatile and is my “go-to” amp for gigging.

In addition to the focused tonal characteristics, boutique amps in general cost significantly more than their mainstream counterparts; let’s face it: They’re investments. But like any investment, you should choose wisely, and go more generic starting out to get an idea of what tone you’re after. A good place to start is a low-cost tube amp, and there are several mainstream tube amps on the market that cost under $500. Some of them, like the Peavey Windsor Studio or Egnater Tweaker will allow you to change power tubes to change tone and dynamics. For instance, a 6L6-based amp will sound quite different than an EL34-based amp or even a high-gain 6V6. Amps like this let you play a bit. Here’s an example list.

VOX Night Train $499
Blackstar HT-5H  $399
333 Amp JCA20H  $333
Epiphone Valve Jr. $129
Egnater Tweaker  $399
Blackheart Little Giant  $199
Fender Blues Jr. $499
Fender Champion 600 $149
Peavey Windsor Studio $399

I started out with a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe myself. I got it before Fender did their price hike last year, so I got it for a great price. It’s a great starter tube amp, and really an unsung hero among amps. But with the right tubes and a replacement speaker, that amp can keep up with many of the boutique amps out there. It’s more pricey than what I listed here, but you can find used ones for around $500. It’s also loud as hell, which makes it viable for doing lots of different venues.

5. Don’t rush… Try learning how a tube amp operates…

The worse thing you can do in making your first tube amp purchase is rushing into it. As I mentioned above, try out several before making your decision. The best advice I ever got was from Noel over at Tone Merchants in Orange, CA. I told him I wanted to get a tube amp, but he insisted that I take my time, and in the meantime get a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe because it was tweakable. That turned out to be the absolutely best advice I had gotten from anyone, and it saved me thousands of dollars. Buying that amp gave me time to learn about how tube amps operate and form an opinion on what I’d like different.

6. Use the buddy system to evaluate an amp

By all means, play through the amps that you are evaluating, but something I’ve found very useful in evaluating amp settings is to have someone else play while I tweak. When I did the Dumble amp video series, I had the fortune of the great Doug Doppler playing so I could REALLY get how it sounded. That’s sort of rare, but even when I’m in a Guitar Center, I’ll sometimes walk up to some dude playing an amp I’d like to evaluate, and ask him if I could tweak while he plays. It’s a great way of quickly evaluating an amp’s capabilities.

So… Not rocket science by any stretch of the imagination, but useful, practical advice that you can hopefully use to your advantage.

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I’ve always had an appreciation for vintage gear, though the most “vintage” that I’ve ever gone is purchasing several sets of NOS tubes over the years. And quite frankly, though I’ve appreciated vintage gear in general, I’ve never been compelled to be a vintage gear collector as I’m an active musician who uses his stuff all the time.

But despite that, I have wanted to get an 50’s tweed Champ for quite awhile. I love small, low-powered amps, and the tweed Champ from the 50’s has been on my list to get for quite some time. After all, that little amp has been used in studios around the world for recording hundreds, if not thousands of Rock ‘N Roll songs.

My only problem with ever getting a tweed Champ was that I didn’t want to spend upwards of $1500 for a mint-condition unit, which is what these puppies go for. And since I’d use it as a player, I’d have to make modifications to it as soon as I got it to make it safe and usable with different cabinets; thus immediately reducing its value.

But luckily there are tweed Champs out there that aren’t in pristine shape, and they’re low enough in cost to warrant consideration. My criteria was that the amp had to work. Period. As long as it did, I wouldn’t have to do too much once I got it. So I found a ’58 Tweed Champ on eBay for a decent price that was missing the back plate, but was still in great working condition, so I purchased it, knowing I’d have to do some mods to make it safe, plus add some longevity to it.

Right now, it’s on transit here, and should arrive tomorrow – I’m so excited! But I will not plug it in until I have a few things done to it, that my good friend Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps will be doing:

  1. First of all, it still has the original two-prong plug. Jeff will install a three-prong grounded plug in it – I’m probably going to go with medical grade on this just to be extra-safe.
  2. It was clear from the pictures that a couple of the original capacitors had leaked a little, so they will be replaced with Sprague caps.
  3. The speaker is also hard-soldered to the amp output, so I’m having Jeff install a 1/4″ female jack so I can use different cabinets with the amp.
  4. Finally, Jeff will create a simple backplate to provide some protection to the electronic components.

All of these “mods” will be reversible, so at least I can retain some value in the amp should I ever sell it. However, I probably will keep this amp forever. I don’t even have it yet, and it still holds some nostalgic value for me. Can’t wait until it arrives!

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