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.