Posts Tagged ‘Tone Master’

I’ve had the amp for several days now and I’ve been playing it for over an hour day as I’ve been woodshedding for an upcoming gig. I just played my first gig with the band in six years, and I won’t lie: I’m still a little rusty. So all this practice has been a great excuse to play with the amp.

One of the things that got me really excited about the amp was the balanced line out. In fact, the one feature was a huge contributing factor in buying the amp. Having gigged for decades, I’ve been a big believer in having just enough volume to hear myself on stage and let the PA/sound folks get my sound out to the audience.

Amps are incredibly directional, especially single-speaker amps, so finding ways to spread out my sound has been very important to me. The typical sound reinforcement solution has always been to mic my amps. That works great, and I still use it when I’m gigging. But the Tone Master amps have a balanced line out AND they have two optional IRs to simulate different mic cabs! That means I can go directly into the PA and have my signal sound like what I’m hearing onstage. In theory…

The Katana also had this feature, and I loved it. But you needed a TRS cable and an XLR converter to plug into a mixing board. Not really that big of a deal, but it is more equipment, and I have forgotten to bring that cable to gigs in the past. But with the Tone Master Deluxe, Fender opted to just output via a regular XLR. That makes things much more convenient!

But the proof is in the pudding. So this morning, I decided to hook the amp up to my DAW to see if it’ll work for me. In short, oh yes, it will work. And the best thing about it is that the port is dead silent! Here are some clips:

IR Test

In this first test, I play a simple clean chord progression three times. The first time is raw with no IR activated. The second demonstrates the first IR which simulates an SM57. The third demonstrates the second IR which simulates a ribbon mic. Note that I recorded all these clips completely silent by activating the amp’s mute switch. Now THAT is amazing!


All these were played with my Godin Artisan ST V. Note that the slight line noise is coming from the guitar itself, not the amp.

Yup, that SM57 IR behaves exactly like what I’d expect from an SM57. It’s warm, but I personally have never liked it for guitar. The ribbon mic IR, on the other hand, is nice and open. That’ll be the one I use for gigs.

Cab 2 w/ Wampler Belle, Volume @ 5

Switching guitars to my Taylor T5z and playing in humbucker mode, I activated my Wampler Belle overdrive with its Gain set right in the middle to see how the line out worked with a pedal. Also, I turned the reverb down to about 2.

I did notice in the recording that I probably needed to up the treble a bit. But what I loved was that there was still enough note separation in the chords.

Cab 2, Volume @ 7, Reverb at 4 1/2

Finally, still playing my T5z, I learned my lesson from the previous clip, upped the treble a bit so the amp was set at 7 for Treble, and 3 for the Bass as the T5z tends to have a pretty fat bottom-end sound. What I wanted to test here was how the natural overdrive of the amp worked with lots of reverb.

Damn! After I listened to the playback, I was blown away by the sound! I love the sound coming from the amp itself, but to have it sound like that in a line out… “Wow!” is all I can say.

This amp is really ticking off all the boxes for me so far. I won’t do a full review on it until I’ve gigged with it a couple of times because by then I will have really put it through its paces. But I have band rehearsal today and as a test, I’m just going to bring the amp and my guitar and see how it works.

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When doing my research on the Tone Master recently, I ran across a great review where the reviewer said that perhaps the attenuator on the Tone Master was really a master volume because, after all, it’s a digital/solid-state amp. Part of me agrees with this because let’s face it: Signal processing happens in the chips of the amp, and not tubes as there are no tubes in the amps.

But another part of me said that depending on where the Fender engineers placed the attenuator in the sequence it could very well be an attenuator. Just like tube amps, a solid-state amp has two basic stages (not including the power supply): The first is the input gain stage (in the tube world it’s commonly known as the preamp stage) that amplifies the incoming signal; then the output stage (power amp) takes the input stage signal, adds more power to it, then outputs it to the speakers.

This is an important concept because of how master volumes and attenuators work. A master volume is placed in between the input and output stages, essentially regulating the amount of signal that flows from the input stage to the output stage. An attenuator, on the other hand, is placed between the output stage and the speaker. And when cranked, the distorted sounds an amp produce are different -sometimes significantly – between a master volume and an attenuator.

Before continuing let’s make an assumption that we want to get an amp into overdrive at a reasonable volume level – let’s say bedroom-level.

To get bedroom-level volume with a master volume-equipped amp, you turn down the master volume way down and crank up the gain or volume knob. This will overload the preamp and cause the signal to distort. As the master volume is essentially a gate that regulates the amount of signal that gets to the power amp, because it’s turned down, the resulting volume is at a level that doesn’t blow your eardrums apart. In this scenario, the distortion is coming almost entirely from the preamp. At least to my ears, this type of distortion tends to have a sharper edge to it.

With an attenuator, on the other hand, as it regulates the amount of signal sent to the the speakers, both the gain and master volume knobs can be cranked up. This means that all the signal from the gain stage can pass into the power amp and saturate it and also drive it into overdrive. The combination of the two types of distortion produce a warmer and a little compressed output signal as compared to just preamp distortion. To be clear, I am in no way suggesting one type of distortion is better than the other. They’re just different.

Circling back to the Tone Master amps, to answer the title of this post, since they only have a single volume knob and no master volume, it seems to me that Fender’s attenuator is actually an attenuator, regulating the final signal that gets to the speakers, as opposed to a master volume.

All that said, I realize that all this is a big fat guess. And in the end, does it really matter? Probably not. I absolutely dig my new Deluxe Reverb. And frankly, whether the power scaling feature is an attenuator or not, the fact that I can crank the amp and not shatter my eardrums is all that matters.

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…I bought the Deluxe Reverb instead. In my previous article where I had test-driven the Twin, I said that while I loved the amp, I had to test drive the Deluxe before I made a decision.

I wasn’t intending to buy the amp today, let alone any amp. But I wanted to try the Deluxe out as the Guitar Center in San Mateo, CA was just five minutes from my office. So after my last meeting, I headed there to try it out. I picked out a Tele from the rack, plugged it in, then twiddled the Bass and Treble knobs to get a good sound for the guitar. It took all of five minutes to make a decision to buy the amp. I was sold.

What did it for me was cranking down the attenuator to 0.2 Watt and cranking the volume all the way up. As soon as I struck a chord, I knew this was the amp I wanted. At that moment, I knew why people loved the sound of a cranked-up Deluxe. There’s something visceral about the overdriven tone of a Deluxe – you feel it in your bones.

No, I wasn’t pushing SPLs, but no matter. I realize that’s where the magic happens. But that cranked sound even at that low volume was absolutely amazing to me! Truth be told, I’d never run the amp fully cranked as I get a lot of my overdrive from my pedals. But that sweet, open overdrive just made me close my eyes and smile inside. I just can’t wait to gig with it!

Then to top it off, I got a 10% discount and the guy at Guitar Center threw in a nice ProLine amp stand to boot! I’m a happy man!

After I got home and had a bit of dinner, I started playing. And playing. I started out with my Taylor T5z as that will be the main guitar I use for gigs with the amp. I had to really roll off the lows on the amp for that guitar. But once I had the EQ dialed in… Wow! My next gig is going to be fun!

Then I switched to my R8 Les Paul. The amp started humming with that guitar, and I realized that I probably have a grounding issue – going to have to get it fixed. So I switched to a guitar I rarely play, and that is my ’90s Godin Artisan ST V. Damn! Why haven’t I been playing that guitar more?!!! It sounds absolutely KILLER through the Deluxe! It sounds like a fat Tele!

I distinctly remember having a difficult time dialing in the guitar with my old Katana 50. But I had absolutely no problem finding the right EQ settings with this guitar – they were the same as my T5z! I may switch back and forth between these guitars. I’ll see how that works at band rehearsal coming up on Sunday.

While I dug the Bright switch feature on the Twin, plus having a Midrange knob, I love how the Deluxe is uncomplicated. I mean REALLY uncomplicated. I started playing it around 6pm this evening, and I’ve been playing it for the last three hours. It sounds so killer! And since I don’t have a cacophony of features to dig through, I’m up and running lickety-split!

But here’s a feature about the amp that is so incredible yet has nothing to do with the amp’s sound. It only weighs 23 pounds! 23 freakin’ pounds! I haven’t had an amp that weighs this little since my trusty old Roland Cube 60! I can easily lug this amp to a gig without using a hand cart! And going up a staircase with this amp will be a breeze! I once played a gig where I had to haul my Katana Artist up some stairs and it was a pain in the ass! But this amp? It’s like carrying a suitcase. No problem!

What I’m really looking forward to is plugging this into my audio interface and PA. This is even more of a game-changer than my Katana with its line-out feature purely because it’s a balanced XLR out. With the Katana, I needed a 1/4″ TRS cable, then an XLR converter to plug into a PA. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but using a single XLR is a helluva lot more convenient. As far as game-changing is concerned, as with my Katana, I just need to be loud enough to hear myself, then let the PA do the work of getting my sound out.

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One of my all-time favorite movies is Revenge of the Nerds. Talk about playing to a stereotype! Everything anyone thought a Nerd would be was portrayed in the movie. It was hilarious and a little disturbing with the accuracy of the portrayals. But in the end, the Nerds win. They take over the Greek council and Lewis gets the hot girl. Hmm… Come to think of it, nothing much has changed even in this day and age. Look who’s running the freakin’ world now? Nerds!

And make no mistake, the Nerds are winning in the guitar world too. The technological advances in gear – especially amps – are absolutely staggering and more and more players are moving to digital solutions that are supplanting analog gear. That’s not just bedroom players. I heard (but need to verify) that even Metallica uses profilers on the road as opposed to stacks.

But here’s the thing: There seems to be this perception that digital amps should be cheap – as in inexpensive. But if you understand the technical differences between digital and solid-state amps you wouldn’t be so quick to make that assumption. There’s a big difference between digital amps and pure solid-state amps.

Yes, both use computer chips. But the big difference is that digital amps use digital signal processors (DSPs) that employ complex algorithms to model the sound and behavior of tube amps. Solid-state amps, on the other hand, produce their sound via a collection of chips that have very little to no logic; certainly, not at the level of processing power a digital amp will have. Those kinds of chips are much less expensive than DSPs, not to mention the much less expensive production costs.

DSPs aren’t just circuits. With a processing unit, you’ve got hardware AND software technology working in concert to manipulate the signal and ultimately produce the sound. Granted, some of this technology is affordable. Look at the Boss Katana Artist 100. It can be had for under $650. The most expensive Line 6 Spider version is only $550.

But then you have the Fender Tone Master Deluxe Reverb at $949 and the Tone Master Twin Reverb at $1049 and the newest member of the Tone Master family, the Tone Master Super Reverb at $1249. When I first saw those prices, my knee-jerk reaction was, “Damn! Here we go again! Fender’s again charging a premium for the nostalgia of its gear.”

But the more I dug into the amps and how much the technology that went into producing their sounds, combined with actually taking the Twin out for a test drive, I’ve kind of backed off my pricing beef. I still think they’re charging a bit for the nostalgia, but I don’t think it’s a pure nostalgia play. That technology costs, and there’s certainly value in it.

Some folks have complained that they’ve only modeled a single amp, comparing the Tone Masters to other digital amps that model a collection of amps. But to me, that’s a straw man argument. With the amps that emulate several different kinds of amps, the voices are a collection of compromises. For instance, my Katana Artist has a “Brown” voicing which could be loosely interpreted as Eddie Van Halen’s Brown Sound. I suppose it’s kinda like it, but the cabinet and speaker of the Katana are completely different than the original. So while you can get an approximation, it’s not really meant to be an exact replica. That’s not to say it’s bad. I’ve had two Katanas, and they have sounds all their own with dynamics that are so close to tube amps that they’re a joy to play.

As for the Tone Master amps, I’m totally behind what Fender has done. Testing out the Twin, it sounded and felt incredible! And its sound is a testament to the technology that went into it. And that technology has a price whether you like it or not.

Digital modeling technology is intellectual property. I disagree with those who think that digital amps should be cheap. If you think that, then you’d have a problem paying a grand for a freakin’ iPhone or other digital devices. But you see value in things like the iPhone, so you’re willing to pay the price, even though the actual production cost is really low. It’s a similar situation with digital modeling amps such as the Tone Master line. And like me, if you see value in it, you’ll pay for it.

To be clear, the Tone Master amps are indeed less than their analog counterparts. For instance, a brand new ’65 Deluxe Reverb Reissue is around $1600, while the Tone Master version is $949. That’s significantly less! It would be delusional to think Fender will drop the price to stupidly low levels, like $300. That would totally take away the value proposition of the technology: Great sound and feel for a relatively accessible price.

Nerds win. Again. You want what they’ve built, you gonna pay for it!

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If you don’t want to read any further…

Damn! I shouldn’t have loved it, let alone like it, but I absolutely fell in love with this amp! I’m not ready to buy it as I’ve got to try out the Deluxe Reverb, but I probably will get one of them. Now that that’s out of the way, let me give you the back story.


With the pandemic lockdown over, my former old farts classic rock band asked me if I’d like to come back and play with them. At first, it was just to sub at an upcoming gig for their current lead guitarist who had to attend a company retreat. But over the course of a few rehearsals leading up to the gig, they kept on hinting, then finally just outright asked if I’d play with them again during the break at our gig. I had forgotten just how much fun I had playing with them so I readily agreed.

For the gig, I used my BOSS Katana Artist. I love that amp and through the first set, it worked awesome. But a few songs into the second set, its volume started fluctuating. I powered it down then powered up again, and it didn’t happen again during the gig. But my confidence in the amp was shaken. And an amp isn’t something that I normally bring a back up for a gig. So needless to say, that experience put me in the market for a new amp.

A couple of days ago, I took a bit of time to go down to my local Guitar Center. They didn’t have the Deluxe in stock, but they did have the Twin. So I took it out for a spin.

Like a regular Twin, it’s all about clean headroom. But the totally AWESOME thing about this amp is that it has power scaling, basically a built-in attenuator to reduce the output wattage of the amp so you can crank it. The Deluxe allows you go all they way down to 0.2 Watt and the Twin lets you go down to 1 Watt. That’s still pretty loud, but it does let you crank the amp and not make your ears bleed.

The dirty sound of the Twin is just okay. Truth be told, it doesn’t break up a lot, but that’s not what you get an amp like that for. But for cleans and tons of clean headroom, this is a GREAT platform. And though the sound is a little different from an original Twin (which frankly you should be able to get real close with EQ), the sound is unmistakenly Fender, with that luscious three-dimensional quality about it. If the amp didn’t have that quality, I would’ve dismissed it out of hand.

But the sound is good. Real good. And for me, it was so good that I almost bought it on the spot, but I need to try out the Deluxe before I make a decision.

And I almost forgot… The amp only weighs 33 lbs! An original Twin starts at 64lbs and goes up. My buddy’s Twin weighs over 80 lbs! And the Deluxe apparently only weighs 23 lbs! For an older guy like me, that’s totally appealing.

I didn’t get to try the feature out at the shop, but I dig the fact that it has an XLR out with optional cab simulation IRs. This is a total value-add as I can get my sound into the PA and not have to rely on the amp to get my sound out. I can keep it at a reasonable volume near me and let the PA get my sound out to the audience.

An XLR out. Power scaling. Great sound. I’m sold. I’ve always leaned towards the Twin because I just love the Twin’s sound. But I’m a little conflicted because the Deluxe’s dirty sound is damn good, at least from what I’ve heard on demos. It’s the kind of amp you set at the edge of breakup then use a combination of volume knob and pedals to tip it over the edge. It’s the way I’ve set up my amps for years. But lately, I’ve been wanting a lot more clean headroom.

Then there’s the weight of each respective amp. The Deluxe is a total lightweight at 23 lbs. And though the Twin only weighs 33 lbs, that’s still a 10-lb difference. I really need to A/B the two amps.

Circling back to sound, one might ask just how close to the sound of an original Twin does the Tone Master get? I’ve played several Twins over the years, but I didn’t have one to A/B, so I can’t really answer that question. But at least for me, the Twin has always been about the classic scooped, Fender sound. The Tone Master has that down in spades. And though it’s a digital amp, emulating an original black face, that emulation is damn good, both in sound and dynamics; so good to me at least that even if it wasn’t emulating an original Twin, it could easily stand on its own merits as a great amp.

Plus, with the two speakers, the spread of the sound is wonderful. Whereas a single 1 X 12 is pretty directional, the two speakers of the Twin provide a sonic spread that adds depth and breadth to the sound.

As compared to my Katana Artist or other digital amps, the Tone Master might seem to be a one-trick pony. But to me, therein lies its beauty. What Fender has done is to create a digital emulation that is absolutely superb, focusing solely on that as opposed to other amps that include effect emulation and/or emulation of several amps. It’s this focus on a single platform and doing it excellently that to me at least makes it stand out.

Admittedly, it’s not for everyone. For years, I’ve gravitated towards the Marshall Plexi sound. I’ve always had a Fender amp of some sort in my studio, but for playing live, I’ve mostly used Marshall style amps. That changed when I got my Katana that I got specifically for its clean headroom to be a pedal platform.

That amp has a sound all its own, and I was actually thinking about getting another one. But what I think influenced my research into the Tone Master line was the old Fender Ultra Chorus I use at band practice. That amp just oozes Fender clean goodness. It’s a great clean platform that emulates my live sound.

If I had any negative marks about the Tone Master line it’s the same negative marks I give to other Fender products. That is the price. At $1049 for the Twin, it’s a bit of a steep barrier to entry. The Deluxe is $949.

With only a few features, you might think that the prices Fender’s charging exceed the value of the amps. But if the sounds differ from the originals much like the difference in sound due to different tubes or speakers, then perhaps the value lies in the emulation software and computing power of the amps. The Deluxe uses dual processors, while the Twin uses quad processors.

That said, you can occasionally get these on sale for slightly less. I may wait for a sale. Or maybe I won’t. I do know that I will end up with one of these amps.

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