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New and Old Gear

My new, unnamed rock band has led to a complete reevaluation of my gear requirements. Around Christmas, I fired up my 20-watt Blackstar head for the first time in six or seven months, and I didn’t like what I heard one little bit. It felt underpowered and sounded brittle and cheap. For a while there, it felt like a 50- or 100-watt tube head was at the top of my to-buy list. Then we started rehearsing once or twice a week, and it seemed like the little fellow shook off the cobwebs or something, because it just sounded better and better the more I played on it. Again, the HT-20 has just come through and defied all my expectations! It is just powerful enough, and it has the sweetest tone! To provide a contrast to Namlar, I have dialed in a woodier, British-type sound with lots of mids and just a touch of bottom end, and if I keep the gain at about 3.5-4, I get a wonderfully dynamic sound where I don’t have to dig in to get full crunch tone, but if I back off, it cleans up very nicely.

My pedalboard has gone through a massive metamorphosis during the past two months. I’ll come clean and admit that I got bitten by the pedal bug (again!) around 2013, and after that, the lack of a clear musical direction made me want to buy all sorts of different pedals, as if I wanted to be ready for anything. Well, now that we’re here, it turns out that I will find no use whatsoever for my fuzz pedals, I still haven’t truly figured out how (or even why) to play with a wah-wah, et cetera. To the consternation of my bass player and drummer, I have been testing various configurations, one rehearsal different from the next, until I have (seemingly) arrived at a suitable configuration. Currently, it is tuner, phaser, boost, tremolo, Uni-Vibe, chorus, flanger and modulated analog delay. I will let the compressor, reverb, vibrato, Vibraclone, Tube Screamer, DS-1 and the Phase 95 live on the small board I keep at home. The TC Electronic Eyemaster is going into strategic reserve, ready to be pulled out for… special occasions.

So far, I’ve brought five of my six electric guitars to our jam sessions: both Fenders and all three Gibsons, but not the PRS baritone. I have used the SG as my main rehearsal guitar since the store tech worked wonders with it back in 2016, so it was a nice diversion to use something else for once. It is so evident that whenever I plug in the black Les Paul, everything just clicks. I enjoy the lightness and attitude of the SG, but the tone and sustain of the Les Paul are simply unbeatable! What surprised me was that the best sound actually came out of my Telecaster. This is not surprising, since it has the nicest unplugged tone of all my electrics, but I didn’t hear it as clearly during the rehearsal as I did on the tapes. There is an attack to it that I suppose comes from the combination of the crisp high end and the single-coil pickups. I will probably soldier on with the two black Gibsons (with humbuckers), but I am definitely going to give P-90:s a second chance, and the Telecaster will wind up in the rehearsal room again. To be quite honest, each of the guitars that I have tested has brought something new to the table, each has managed to unlock something special and different in my playing, and none of them has made me say never again.

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Posted by on 7 April, 2019 in editorial, gear

 

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Review: Marshall MG15CFX amplifier

The Marshall MG15CFX is a 15-watt solid-state combo amp with built-in digital effects. It has four channels (more properly: four gain stages), two reverbs (studio and spring) and five effects: chorus, flanger, phaser, delay (with tap tempo!) and octaver. Naturally it has a line in for jamming along to an MP3 player or the like, and there is also a headphone output for silent practicing. There is no USB port, so you cannot control it via software, this is an old-school amp with new-school accouterments.

The MG15CFX has few controls, but utilize them well. The channels/presets are accessed via two buttons: one switches between clean and crunch, the other between OD1 and OD2. It remembers the last setting, so you can switch back and forth between, say, crunch and OD2 without having to click excessively. There is also a footswitch jack for when your hands are otherwise engaged. A button switches the amp between manual mode (the sound reflects the current amp settings) and preset mode (one saved preset per gain stage, including gain, volume, EQ settings, reverb and effect). There are no real surprises with the controls: gain, volume, 3-band EQ and master volume work as they would on any other amp. The reverb and effects controls are a combination of effect selector and intensity adjustment. (No effect – twist – some chorus – twist – more chorus – twist – some phaser, etc.) This also means that you can only combine reverb and effect – no chorus and delay combination, for instance.

The dry sounds are standard fare for Marshall amps: a solid clean tone, good crunch sounds and a nice, fluid lead tone. With judicious use of the channel selector, gain knob and EQ, you can dial in anything from ballad clean to death metal, from the Bluesbreakers to Iron Maiden. As I’ve remarked in another review of another amp from another British manufacturer, it’s very nice to see (hear?) that solid state amps nowadays can also make some pretty convincing crunch-type sounds, it’s not just clean and full-on distortion. It’s just a pity that the unit doesn’t come with a noise gate, because you get quite a bit of annoying hiss on the OD channels. The effects are good enough for home practice and simple demoing, but I’d probably look elsewhere for delays and phasers.

It is difficult to make a proper recommendation of this unit, since it so much depends on your point of view. If you’re a Marshall aficionado and want something that sounds good at very low volume levels, where even a 1-watt tube amp would be too much, it is an obvious choice. Whether you would want this amp or its simpler sisters (the CFR comes with spring reverb only, the CF is sans effects) comes down to a matter of budget and applicability. If you are a traditionalist and/or prefer adding effects in post when recording, then obviously you’ll want the bone-dry CF. Comparing it to other brands at the same price point inevitably brings up the apples-versus-apples debate. This Marshall only ever strives to sound like a Marshall. Fenders, Voxes, Line6:s, Blackstars – all those model other amp types as well. If it were me, I’d spend the extra cash on a Blackstar ID:15, just for the flexibility and the extra power and control (via the software).

 
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Posted by on 10 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: Blackstar ID:30, continued

18 months after the acquisition of my Blackstar ID:30, I think it is worth the effort to look back on whether my initial impressions have held up, or if it might even have been surpassed by other gear. Since it is a digital amplifier, continuous updates to the firmware and the Insider software can bring about major changes. Let’s address them and see where that leaves us:

First of all, one of the major reservations of my initial review was that it was not particularly Fender-friendly. I take that back. It turned out that I did not check my facts properly before delivering that particular judgement. The noise gate might not be infinitely configurable, but it has three settings: off, low and max. “Low” works fine with my Stratocaster.

Next, firmware updates have got rid of some of the minor nuisances. Originally, I remarked that the ID:30 “out-Fenders Fender”, in that they’ve managed to make a 30-watt 1 x 12 combo sound like a big, fat 100-watt 2 x 12 Twin Reverb (when you select the 6L6 output stage and the US EQ). This was pretty much a sword that cut both ways, since when playing distorted, the American EQ would sound obscenely boomy in the room, and completely obliterate the input stage of my sound card and recording software. This was fixed in a firmware update, and I’m pleased to report that the machine now produces US and British tones with equal aplomb.

The very same firmware update also fixed a nagging ergonomic problem: the lack of a midrange knob on the control panel. Now, the tap tempo button doubles as a shift button for the bass, treble and ISF controls, meaning ID:15 and ID:30 not only have access to the midrange, but also to the resonance and presence controls that were previously only found on the 60- and 100-watt models. This has never been a dealbreaker, since it is no big deal hooking the amp up to my computer via USB, and it’s just too much fun horsing around with the Insider software, which lets you save your sounds for later access, or for assignment to any of the 12 patches accessible via the buttons on the amp chassis. I now not only have a duplicate of my HT-20 sound, I think I’ve also managed to nail Hetfield’s tone on Master of Puppets.

The reverbs and delays are good enough for living-room noodling; when recording, I prefer adding them in post, so the patches I have earmarked for recording projects are fairly dry. The effects are off and on: the flanger is not very good and the phaser is all right so long as you use it on clean sounds. The chorus is very nice, however, and the tremolo – well, it’s a tremolo. This brings up one of the surprising things for a solid-state amplifier: that it takes pedals really, really well. I can put my pedalboard in front of it with no hesitation whatsoever and get perfectly fine tones for recording.

Lastly, the best review you could ever hope to give a piece of gear is the spontaneous outbursts of bandmates, colleagues, producers and general listeners. I’ve had to endure a few barbs about the amount of blinking lights (“Mission Control!”), but generally, the verdict has been just about unanimous: this is a damn fine-sounding amp! My singer/bass player was convinced that I had used the big tube rig on our EP, but it was just a little digital combo straight into a sound card. We guitar players are truly blessed to be living in times like these. There just aren’t any excuses left for having bad tone.

 
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Posted by on 3 November, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: Blackstar HT Studio 20 head

The Blackstar Studio 20 is a tube amplifier that comes in two versions: a small form-factor head and a 1 x 12 combo. The subject of this review is the head, which I bought new in early 2011.

This is a very bare-bones amplifier. You get two channels, clean and OD, with a little foot controller that switches between the channels, an effects loop and a digital reverb (that cannot be selected via the footswitch). The clean channel has only two controls (volume and tone), but the OD channel has the full range of gain, volume, 3-band EQ and the customary Infinite Shape Feature, a knob that that gradually revoices the EQ from American to British tones. There are no little switches or buttons tucked away between the knobs or on the back of the chassis.

Some might feel underwhelmed by the single tone control on the clean channel, but it is voiced pretty well, with a slight American bias. By the time you reach 9 or 10, it starts to break up, but never achieves crunch, for which you would need an overdrive pedal of some kind. It is a good clean sound that can be round and jazzy or bright and twangy.

The OD channel is considerably more versatile. It does everything from mild breakup to completely over-the-top monster distortion. With the ISF control, I have yet to imagine a crunch sound that I haven’t been able to dial in. It does blues and classic rock very well, and has no problem with more extreme metal tones. Using the not particularly powerful PAF-36 humbuckers in my Les Paul, I get thrashy tones with the gain at noon, and to get a more conventional rock sound, I am forced to back off until about 9 o’clock. Most importantly, it is very responsive to playing dynamics and the control settings on the guitar. On all but the most saturated settings, you ought to be able to clean the dirty sound right up just by backing off on the guitar volume. This might be the ticket for players who feel constricted by the clean channel. About the only sound you can’t get via that method is a spanky clean with lots of headroom.

I was initially apprehensive about the 20-watt EL34 power section. Would it really be enough? As luck would have it, not long after my purchase, my good friend Viktor brought its big brother, the Blackstar HT Stage 100 head, to our rehearsal room and allowed me to perform an A/B test through the same 4 x 12 cabinet. The only difference in favor of the 100 watt was that it did have a bottom end that can’t be achieved at lower power levels. With the 20-watt, you get a whole shitload of volume (half the power of a 200-watt amp!), but you just don’t get that iron fist reaching up through the ground to pound your rib cage. I, however, immediately decided that I could live without that. In our band, the bass player supplies the bottom end and I happily exist in the middle. The benefits of the 20 are so much greater. First of all, the 20 has better tone: more womanly shaped, not as shrill and harsh as the 100. Second, I can push it much harder, which in itself adds lots of overtones and sustain. Any qualms about lack of power were squashed at the very first gig I did with the Studio 20. At the soundcheck, I was asked to turn down, turn down and then turn down some more. For small stages, and when you mike everything, it is actually overpowered.

The Studio 20 has been able to perform every job I’ve thrown at it for two years, and with flying colors. It might not have four channels (each with three modes), twin effects loops, solo level or assignable 5-band EQ, but it all comes down to what sort of player you are. Some players prefer to have all their tones ready to rock at the push of a pedal. In that case, the Studio 20 might not be for you. If you’re like me, then manipulation of the controls of the electric guitar is part and parcel of playing the instrument. In that case you will find this a wonderfully flexible tone machine almost irrespective of style and genre. It punches way above its weight class. And price tag.

On a more personal and less objective note, I have to admit that there are few times indeed during one’s career when one tries out a piece of equipment and it just changes one’s perception of everything. I cannot speak highly enough of this amplifier. It beat out some serious competitors to become my weapon of choice. I had my mind set on a Marshall JVM 410 or a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier, and then a guy plugged me into this little amp and I was completely blown away.

Part of my buyer’s remorse had a little to do with the gnawing fear that I had let my wallet dictate terms to me. This amp was inexpensive, but would it prove to be too cheap? No, or at least: not yet. I have played this thing for over two years, and still get tremendous enjoyment out of the thing. I have tempted fate by trying out more Marshalls and Boogies, but nothing has been able to tickle my fancy. Quite the reverse, actually: I’ve been taken aback by the fact that amplifiers of such venerable brands and with such hefty price tags do not offer me anything other than flexibility that I ultimately have no need for. The Studio 20 has made me reevaluate how I think of tone, and above all: made me reconsider just what I need in a guitar amplifier. How I wish that these guys had started up just a few years before they did! Then I might not have gone down the blind alley that was the Marshall JMP-1: the MIDI setup that never was.

To summarize, it is a weird but very pleasant situation to be this satisfied. I grew up under the impression that there is always a better amp. Now I’m not so sure.

 
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Posted by on 18 April, 2013 in gear, review

 

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Review: Blackstar ID:30 TVP

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!

 
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Posted by on 16 April, 2013 in gear, review

 

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Review: Mesa/Boogie Mini Rectifier Twenty-Five

The last time I played a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier was in early 2010. I absolutely loved it and since I was anyway thinking of upgrading my solid-state Marshall rig to something that used tubes, it felt like the logical next goal. Something to save up for, something to daydream about. Who knew, it might turn out to be the last amp I would ever need to buy. (Yeah, right…)

But I got sidetracked by another project in another field, and when I came around to trying out new amps, I had discovered another brand that I immediately fell for. So when the Mini Rectifier came out, it caused almost an existential crisis for me. By that time, I had realized that 100 watts was the epitome of overkill for the sort of thing I normally do. I had got used to my 20 watts, and to get the Rectifier sound in a small package with about the same wattage – it was a dream come true. For that very reason, I refused to try it out. I wanted to continue living my musical life in the bliss of ignorance. I didn’t want to get floored by the sound of it. When I finally had an amp that I was really satisfied with, I didn’t want to restart the switching procedure.

But something happened along the way. I found out that good enough is most often good enough, and perfect just a pain in the ass and not worth the hassle. I didn’t expect anything when I finally did plug into a Mini Recto. Still, it was disapppointment in a box. Sure, it has a lot of power, even at the 10-watt setting. But I can’t figure out why someone would want that over-distorted sound. It sounds like the thing is broken!

Perhaps I’m not equipped to understand the brilliance of Mesa/Boogie, just because I don’t live on the road, or whatever. But I cannot for the life of me understand what the hell it is that you spend all that extra money for except for the logo.

 
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Posted by on 17 March, 2013 in gear, review

 

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The Tale of the Lunchbox

We guitar players are living in exciting times. I am talking about the lunchbox amplifier: a small form factor head that packs a full set of tubes (or valves) and is rated between 1 and 20 watts.

For not much money, you can get a tube amplifier that you can crank to your heart’s content and both your eardrums and your rental contract will be intact afterwards. Moreover, you don’t have to break your back to bring one onto a small stage, and when it gets there, it doesn’t completely obliterate the rest of the band.

It started with the smaller, upstart companies, and now, five, six years down the line, even the high-wattage giants Marshall and Mesa/Boogie have jumped on the bandwagon and issued lunchboxes of their own.

I think this is a wonderful development. Tube amplification has all of a sudden become a realistic option for us home recording people who happen to live in apartments. As well as for amateur musicians who take to stages that are no more than dimly lit corners of restaurants. Even though the sound quality of solid-state equipment has been steadily improving in the past 20 years, there is just something about tubes that we don’t want to abandon.

This is all well, but it does beg one question. Did it take that many years for the industry to realize just how overpowered a 50 or 100 watt stack really is? Or has it been a form of confirmation bias: amp manufacturers have only ever offered 50 and 100 watts, thus people have not been able to buy anything else, confirming back to the manufacturer the correctness of their offerings?

 
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Posted by on 17 March, 2013 in editorial, gear

 

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