I grew up on Marshalls and played them off and on for the first 20 years of my career. It was only when someone forcibly plugged me into a Blackstar that I realized that there even were other brands. Previously it had always been about Marshall, and the only other option would have been Mesa/Boogie. But after this epiphany, I actually started seeing Marshall in a new and not altogether flattering light. As soon as the wool fell from my eyes, they started to appear a bit fuddy-duddy, seemingly too preoccupied with their own excellence, too absorbed by their pedigree and traditions to attempt any sort of innovation. I did try a number of new Marshall products in 2011 and 2012: the Class 5 combo, the first three 50th anniversary 1-watt amps. All of these were fine amps that put a big smile on my face. But as a control measure, I made sure to plug into some form of Blackstar immediately afterwards, and it never failed to amaze me how much more clarity and flexibility I could get out of them for a fraction of the price of the Marshall. My image of Marshall did not improve when they started releasing headphones, hi-fi amplifiers and smartphones. But when they announced the Code range of digital modelling amplifiers, developed with my countrymen from Softube, my curiosity was piqued. It got even more intense when the first sample videos started appearing on Youtube, the buzz got going, and to me, the most important indicator was that the Code amps were impossible to get a hold of for months. I asked my regular music store if they could get one for me and they agreed. This was in April, and the amp arrived in August. During those four months, I went from “I can’t wait to try this amp” to “I gotta have it NOW” on the strength of one glowing review after another. I tried very hard to not want the Code 25. After all, I have been extremely satisfied with my Blackstar ID:30 for three years, and if it ain’t broke, etc. But then it hit me that I didn’t really need the ID:30 either, since between 2010 and 2013 I was perfectly happy with my Fender G-DEC 3 Fifteen. I suddenly recalled what some guy in the store said to me years ago about the second-hand value of digital amps: they’re like computers in that a new model comes out and then you can’t even sell the old one for coffee money. During the long wait for the Code 25, and the constant debate about whether or not to actually buy it, I realized that three years is a long time in this digital era. Last year I bought a fairly recent digital camera and was floored by the technological improvements made since my old model was released in 2005. The Blackstar was a significant improvement over the Fender. So the Marshall should run rings around the Blackstar. Right? Well, let’s have a look:
First of all, a few words in general about the Code range: three combos: 25, 50 and 100 watts, and a 100-watt head. The 25-watt combo has a 10-inch speaker, the 50-watt a 12-inch speaker and the 100-watt combo two 12-inch speakers. All amps have the same software and the same controls, the only difference between them is that the Code 25 has a smaller LCD. I like this setup because if there’s one thing that bothers me with the Blackstar ID:30, it’s the lack of a midrange control. One thing that definitely sold me on the Code range was the aggressive pricing. The Code 25 is almost half the price of the ID:30 when I expected the reverse to be true. Diving into the actual digital contents, you select between a full range of Marshall preamps, and what I can only imagine are simulations of Fender, Vox and Mesa. There are four different power-tube selections and a number of speaker simulations, everything from a 1 x 12 to a full 4 x 12. If you have a smartphone, you can download the Marshall Gateway app and have full control over the amp via Bluetooth, which is kind of nifty. Another great selling point, something I missed sorely from the Fender G-DEC 3, was the ability to insert effects before the preamp. For some reason, I prefer dialing back the gain a little for my lead tone and boosting it back up with a clean boost or overdrive pedal, and I like having a bit of compression on my clean tone before it hits virtual tape. This Marshall lets me do both without having to plug in my pedalboard! The effects block consists of the usual fare: chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, delays, reverbs, a pretty cheesy pitch-shifter. About the only real surprise is the Uni-Vibe setting on the phaser, which is actually pretty good! I’m not going to go on and on about the effects, because 1) I haven’t spent that much time figuring them out, possibly related to the fact that 2) I didn’t buy this amp for the effects but for the British overdrive tones.
There are quite a few sweet sounds among the 100 factory presets. I am not wild about factory presets in general, since they tend to be a bit exaggerated, which is understandable, since the manufacturer obviously wants to show off the entire range of the product and they can’t predict the whims of every user. But there are a few zingers in the list. Six weeks after buying the amp, I have actually yet to get around to fine-tuning the thing, because some of these sounds are so damn good. I find myself scrolling between three sounds in particular: nos. 41, 51 and 67, or, a Bluesbreaker sim, a JCM800 sim and a Silver Jubilee sim. No 13 is positively shredtastic: a JCM800 with an overdrive in front and everything on 10! It is quite likely a bit too over the top for recording, but for practicing and general couch shredding it is not far from a dream tone. About the only Marshall tone that doesn’t work is the DSL sim. I have simply no idea what they were thinking when they dialed that one in. And the American sounds are not convincing at all; my Blackstar does one hell of a better job with the blackface Twin sound. Someone commented that the Code series is a good way to try out different Marshall amps and combinations with tubes and cabs to see what works for you. I don’t know about that. Of course I’d like that to be true, but I couldn’t tell, since I simply don’t have enough stick time with any of the models that the Code is supposed to simulate. All I know is that the JCM800 model comes pretty damn close to the proverbial good British metal tone. One thing with the Code 25 that manages to be heartwarmingly charming and amazingly annoying at the same time is the master volume knob, which works just like an old tube Marshall: either too soft or too loud. The one thing that I absolutely do not like with the Code 25 is the speaker. I don’t know if this particular speaker is bad, or if there’s just something about 10-inch speakers, but it farts out if you look at it funny. Single notes can work fine, but chords and dyads on the bass strings and the thing just makes weird noises. Thankfully, the direct signal from the headphone socket sounds fine, and that was the main point behind getting the amp anyway. This is not something I intend to mike up or put behind me on a stage.
The Marshall Code 25 is not going to supplant my Blackstar ID:30, but it complements it very well, and it has given Marshall a bit of a comeback from my perspective. I might very well write a second review when I’ve logged some more hours on it, especially in the studio.