The minute Blackstar announced the ID:15 and ID:30 True Valve Power amplifiers, I posted a rhetorical question on Twitter about whether this would be the perfect solution to my session amp woes. I love the sound of glowing tubes, but I’ve been led to realize that even my 20-watt amp turned out to be way overpowered for the kind of gig I normally do. At least a solid-state amp doesn’t lose its punch and oomph when you turn it down the way I’m forced to.
I am not wild about the insane amount of time that passed between the announcement of the ID series and the first delivery to stores. For a while, I was convinced the ID amps were going to be vaporware. That would have been a crying shame, seeing as I had quickly developed a high regard for the Blackstar brand.
But finally, they did arrive, and during the course of the waiting period, my Fender broke and my priorities changed. I had been convinced that I was going to have to invest in a Line6 Pod HD for home recording and a 5-watt Blackstar combo for session stuff. But I found that whereas the Fender worked fine for recording via the line out, I sorely missed having a small practice amp around. When the buzz finally started, and delivery of the ID:s seemed imminent, I got the notion that maybe one small Blackstar solid-state combo could perform in all three roles.
This is a tall order even for an expensive amp, and now that I’ve finally put it through its paces in all three settings, let’s have a look at how it’s fared:
As a practice amp, the ID:30 just rocks. The heavier crunch sounds are especially impressive, the sound just jumps out of the speaker and you can get a full, juicy, fluid lead tone at any volume setting. We have come a long way since the early Valvestate combos. I have come to expect good distorted tones from contemporary solid-state amps, but the ID:30 provides what I can only describe as a dimension beyond that. There is something with the tone that feels like it’s feeding back into my fingers – very much like the way tubes behave when they’re given a good workout. The strings feel thicker and meatier for some strange reason, but at the same time, the extreme fluidity of the tone makes it easier to play fast. But it isn’t just the character and response of the tone, it is also the shape of the tone. It feels like they’ve been able to squeeze the thunderous bass response of a 4 x 12″ cabinet into a 1 x 12″ combo. Metal rhythms have a very pleasing booming quality to them, and when messing about with clean sounds, you don’t get that small, tinny combo sound but a big, round combo sound. Think: a good silverface Twin. Lastly, I particularly like that they have been able to create good crunch sounds. No longer are you forced to choose between ultra clean and ultra gain simply because those are the only settings that the amp can do convincingly. The ID:30 covers the middle of the gain range quite well.
The ID:30 is actually not a modeling amplifier per se. Unlike most other amps and effects units that model, it doesn’t have cleverly named amp sims like “blackface”, “British blues”, “Rectifier” or “British jangle”. You have six gain stages that define the range of the gain knob: everything from sparkly clean to heavy distortion. Then there is the three-band EQ and Blackstar’s patented Infinite Shape Feature that revoices the EQ bands between the US and the UK. Last but not least, there is the TVP (True Valve Power) section, that emulates six different output tube configurations. True Valve Power incidentally means that it’s supposed to put out as much power as a tube amp of the same rating – something that has never been the case until now.
Taken together, these features add up to some serious flexibility. It is also creatively stimulating, because you don’t have to settle for the same old amp sims that have been done ad nauseam. If you know what you’re doing, you can approximate the classic amps (the ID:30 out-Fenders Fender – it does a better blackface sound than Fender’s own G-DEC!), but you also get loads of other potential settings to experiment with.
The effects section has four modulation effects (phaser, flanger, chorus, tremolo), four delay types and four reverbs. One of each can be active at any one time, so you cannot experiment with gated flanger sounds or the like. I have never understood flanger, but I like the other three effects even though it is a bit of an adjustment tapping the tempo on the provided button rather than dialing it in. The only way to get stomp box-like control is to connect the amp to your computer via USB and use the free Blackstar Insider software to twist the virtual knobs.
For recording purposes, the ID:30 has a speaker-emulated headphone jack that doubles as a line out. The output is determined not by the master volume but by the channel volume. I like this feature, since you would likely save your favorite sounds as patches anyway, and then you have the possibility to record completely silently, through studio monitors, or use the amp for monitoring (or screaming feedback!). On (virtual) tape, it sounds as good as it does in the room: big and solid.
On stage, I was struck by how much air the 12-inch speaker could set into motion. To be brutally honest, when you put the ID:30 in a rehearsal/stage situation, there is just no way you’re going to fool me it’s a tube amplifier. It doesn’t have the natural punch and roar. Still, it is surprisingly powerful for 30 solid-state watts and the tone is still awesome. I played an entire gig with the master volume at about 3.5 and I didn’t hear the slightest sign of a struggle. The clean sounds remain clean and there is no flabbiness. The one thing it doesn’t do well is heavy metal riffing at high volume. The speaker cone came awfully close to embedding itself in our drummer’s face when I tried the OD2 channel with the master volume at 5. But to be fair: that’s not why I bought the ID:30. I’m also fairly certain that no serious metal player would consider anything less than 100 watts and at least 4 12-inch speakers to do the job properly.
There is a lot to like with the ID:30, especially for the price. However, it is not a flawless piece of design and engineering. If you want full control over the shape of your sound, you have to go via the Insider software. The 15 and 30-watt combos do not have a midrange control on the chassis; that parameter is only accessible through software. I have not yet experimented enough to see if and how the midrange values are saved between sessions and when going in and out of patch mode. If this is a dealbreaker for you, you have to pony up the cash for the 60-watt combo or any of the two heads.
The hugeness of the sound ultimately comes off as a bit of a double-edged sword. It is all right for playing, less so for recording. A sound that works fine with open chords and single-string lines comes uncomfortably close to clipping the signal in my recording software when I palm-mute. There is some weird resonance that overloads the input of my recording software. But since I haven’t logged that much experimentation time with the ISF and EQ, let’s just say that the jury’s still out on that one.
Blackstar has released a dedicated 4-way footswitch for the ID series. I had one on order, but didn’t get it in time before the gig. However, I was grateful to note that my old single-switch controller (from my Studio 20) is perfectly compatible with the ID:30. It only switches between patches 1 and 2 in the active bank, but in a pinch, that’s enough for my purposes. All I really need is a good clean sound and a good drive sound – everything else is a bonus. (This is incidentally why I’m comparatively silent on the effects section: I don’t have enough stick time with them!)
The problem is that the switching isn’t instantaneous. There is a noticeable lag after you step on the switch and the sounds seem to fade into each other in a weird way. It isn’t unacceptable, but if split-second timing is critical for your playing, be advised and learn how to work around it – or find a more suitable amp. I will likely not be buying the 4-way switch after all, but that has more to do with the sad fact that I play live so seldom and the single footswitch is quite enough when I do.
After putting the amp through its paces using two Fenders and two Gibsons, I have a lingering suspicion that this amp series was designed with metal-oriented players and guitars in mind. It sounds fantastic with my Gibsons and with the Super Distortion-equipped Telecaster. It is less impressive with the Stratocaster, but it isn’t a tone issue so much as the noise gate seems to have an awfully high threshold. My Stratocaster can barely keep the gate open, there is a noticeable swelling effect as it almost reluctantly disengages to sound the note.
So what’s the bottom line? It took only a few minutes in the store for me to decide on buying this amplifier. The purchase was based on its qualities as a practice amp and everything else would be a bonus. You don’t need 30 watts at home, but I spent the extra few hundred crowns on doubling the wattage in case it would turn out to perform passably at rehearsals and gigs. It really does, and the sound alone makes me twice as determined to fix that little resonance wrinkle during recording. This amp is definitely recommended!