Posts Tagged ‘amplification’

I did a “What is it about…” regarding the tone of a 100-Watt amplifier recently, and while I’m now hooked on higher-wattage amps, and will probably sell off a few of my low wattage amps, I’ve got some other lower-wattage amps – namely, my Aracom amps – that I will never part with because of their insanely fantastic tone and dynamics. While not nearly as beefy-sounding or -feeling as a 100 Watt amp, they just ooze great tone, and when cranked to the hilt, just sustain for days!

For instance, this morning I played a church service at my kids’ school and had two of my fellow church band members to play a power trio. Since we didn’t have a lot of room (the 5th grade class shares our normal band space), I just brought my Aracom PLX18 BB Trem combo with me so I wouldn’t have to hook up a cab. This amp is based upon the popular Marshall 18-Watt Plexi circuit, which is absolutely simple, as all vintage Plexi circuits were. It has a single gain stage that feeds into an EQ (and on the PLX, it’s a single tone knob to bleed off highs), then straight into the power amp. I believe it’s this simplicity that gives the amp and its Marshall ancestors such pure tone.

With their single gain stage, obviously amps of this ilk will not do over-the-top overdrive, and have to be cranked (as in dimed) to deliver any overdrive. But when they do deliver it, it’s smooth as silk and incredibly dynamic and articulate. This has always been my experience with Plexi-style amps, be they 100 Watts or 18 Watts. For my own PLX, as I said, it may not have the beefy tone that a 100 Watt version may offer, but that smooth overdrive and dynamicism is all present.

Anyway, I set up my rig this morning and I warmed up the amp. Then I plugged in my Gibson 2009 Limited Run Nighthawk, and started playing some warm-up scales. I hadn’t played my PLX for awhile, and running through my warm-up, I was reminded about how damn good that amp sounds! As Jeff Aragaki (Aracom’s owner) puts it, “It doesn’t matter what wattage the amp is. You just know a great amp when you play and hear it. And Marshall got that circuit right.” At least to me, Jeff couldn’t be more right. The PLX is pretty much an exact copy of the classic 18 Watt Plexi circuit (with some slight mods that Jeff has made), and that amp was made to be hit hard. When you do that, you’re rewarded with a tone that, at least to me, is other-worldly! If you’re looking a great Plexi-style amp, this is an amp you have to check out!

Here’s a little treat. Gene Baker of B3 Guitars recorded a great clip that demonstrates the PLX18’s wonderful crunch tone. Check it out:

Over the years, I’ve tried and tested a lot of different amps, and several that cop Marshall designs. No doubt, there are some great amps out there, but Jeff at Aracom really “gets it” with respect to vintage Marshall-esque amps. The cool thing is that instead of making an exact replica of the circuits as many amp builders do, Jeff sees where he feels the designs may be weak, makes corrections or improvements, or creates new amps altogether from the base. For instance, my VRX22 started out as a Plexi 18, but Jeff wanted to add more gain with the second channel, so he added another gain stage that acts as a tube overdrive that’s always on, went from EL84’s to 6V6’s, and what he came up with is an absolutely superb amp that has vintage-style Marshall dynamics, but a sound all its own.

For more information, please visit the Aracom Amps site!

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You know me, I’m a low-wattage amp kind of guy. I find them really versatile and use them in a variety of venues and especially in the studio. But lately, I’ve been playing with a Sebago Sound 100 Watt Double Trouble – it’s a D-style amp – and I can say with confidence that I know what the big amp guys are talking about now. I have to use an attenuator with the amp, but even at lower volumes, there’s a certain thickness to the signal that a low wattage amp just can’t produce naturally.

Now, through the wonders of technology, I’ve been able to EQ low-wattage amps on recordings in such a way to make them sound a lot bigger than they are, but when an amp produces that fatness naturally, all I can say is “Wow!”

Tonight, I brought the amp to my church gig, and just couldn’t believe what I was hearing! The amp sounds great, yes (and I’ll have a full review of it soon), but the sheer power of 100 Watts – even attenuated –Β  was something I hadn’t experienced before. It’s hard to describe what it was like, but there is definitely a certain dynamicism in the tone and – excuse the pun – a power that my low wattage amps just don’t produce.

Does this mean I’ll get rid of my low wattage amps? Absolutely not because they’re just great tools. But I’ll probably be gigging with something more powerful more often than not from now on… πŸ™‚


As kind of a follow-on to the original article, Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps and I spoke this morning, and the real difference-maker between the big amp and small amp – at least to me – is really evident when you have the power tubes in play. In my studio (read: garage), the amp at low gain sounded like any other amp – even my small amps – through a 1 X 12. But when I hooked up the Sebago to my attenuator, and opened up the master volume, all sorts of great things happened in terms of getting a much more complex tone; even clean. So yeah, the power tubes have A LOT to do with the thick tone of a high gain amp.

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Since I’ve gotten it, I’ve been absolutely digging the VHT Special 6. It’s such a versatile little amp, with bright cleans and capable of creating some gorgeous, sustaining overdrive. And while I do certainly appreciate its clean tone, this amp totally shines when it’s cranked to hilt.

To demonstrate, here’s a clip I recorded this evening with the VHT Special 6:

Now here’s the thing about recording with a low-wattage amp. I’ve found that almost invariably, it’s difficult to get a big sound out of the stock speaker, no matter where I place the microphone. People recommend recording from an angle lined up along the outside of the speaker cone. I’ve never had much success with that, considering I’m not using any high-end mics. So my solution is to use larger speakers to get that bigger sound.

For this clip, I used two different 1 X 12 speaker cabinets: The rhythm track was recorded using a Fane Medusa 150 speaker to get a bigger bottom end. The lead was recorded with a Jensen Jet Falcon – that’s my favorite speaker at the moment. And of course, because even 6 Watts cranked is very loud, I ran the amp through my Aracom PRX150-Pro and recorded each track at about loud conversation level. It’s just loud enough to move the speaker cone a bit, but not so loud that I’d wake up the neighbors. πŸ™‚

For both parts, I used my Les Paul R8. For the rhythm, I recorded in the middle selector switch biased towards the bridge, and for the lead, I recorded with the bridge pickup only. To make the guitar tone sound even bigger, I added just a tiny bit of compression to each track and added a touch of small room reverb to add some dimension. I didn’t EQ the guitar parts at all. That’s the natural sound of the amp through the speakers I used. The compression keeps the sound focused. At least to my ears, the guitar parts sound like they’re coming from a much bigger amp.

As far as the amp setting were concerned, I was plugged into the hi input with the amp set to high-power mode. Tone and volume were at 3pm, and I engaged the Boost. Even at these cranked settings, the amp will clean up very nicely! That’s how responsive this amp is!

Admittedly, if I were to rewind and go back to when I bought the amp, I’d probably go with the head. The stock speaker is great for practicing, but for gigging and recording, it just sounds much better with at least a 1 X 12. But hey! A handwired amp for $199? Geez! I can live with its shortcomings as what it brings to the table tonally is fabulous!

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Like any gear freak, I’ve got tons of gear. Just check out the “My Rig” page, andΒ  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! πŸ™‚

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!


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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. πŸ™‚ 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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