A guitar player with no amp? What’s next, a graphic designer with no Macintosh? A writer with no latte? Alas, it’s true. With the highly focused and forensic nature of the work on the Cracking the Code film project, there’s been no need for me to own anything that produces actual amplified sound. For the last several years, my musical activities have targeted the mechanical over the creative, and the visual over the aural. Sure, I’ve produced lessons, but those have generally been recorded direct-to-Powerbook, using one of my trusty Tech 21 NYC Tri-OD or GT2 pedals, or the amp emulation built into Apple’s excellent and underrated GarageBand. Otherwise, there has been no writing of song nor playing of gig. Walking past my house, there would be no evidence to suggest it was anything other than the abode of another sonically unobtrusive yuppie.
While I clearly do not share the guitar industry’s sometimes entrenched retrograde attitude toward technology, there is definitely something to be said for the rustic appeal of fifty year-old amp and guitar designs. I started in digital audio with a lowly Mac Quadra, a SCSI-based Yamaha CBX-D3 interface, and a copy of Opcode Systems Studio Vision, the digital audio sequencing application that broke the synchronized audio and midi barrier. (Can this venerable piece of software be so old and ignominious that it is unworthy of its own Wikipedia entry? Shocking.)
Along the way, I formatted drives and installed PCI cards as I waded through a rising tide of 16-bit, 18-bit, and 24-bit S/PDIF, AES/EBU, ADAT, USB, and Firewire interfaces. Suffice it to say, in a musical world where acronyms proliferate like greenhouse gases, keeping it simply stupid is always an attractive option. In fact, it may be that our collective love of the bleeding edge is exactly what keeps guitars themselves technically in the dark ages — a galacto-musical limit of complexity, which, like the speed of light, cannot be superceded, and which requires the word Fender, Gibson, or Marshall on one side of the equation at all times to keep the universe from imploding.
Nevertheless, I grow weary of rigging cables and adapters to hear what I practice. Much to the chagrin of my Brooklyn neighbors, who are no doubt thankful for this propitious syzygy of quietude, I am about to break the silence.
That’s right, it’s time buy an amp. And considering I’m starting from a blank slate, I see no reason not to play the field. In fact, I’ll have to, because I have only the vaguest of preconceived notions of what tone should be. There is no shortage of irony in the fact that I have primarily used modeling technology like Garageband and the Tri-OD to generate guitar sounds, yet I am also largely ignorant of the sounds they are presumably modeling. I’ve spent vast amounts of time — two decades, in fact — unraveling the mechanical secrets of the guitar, but I wouldn’t know what a Fender or Marshallamp sounded like if one landed on my head.
The first, and until recently, only amp I ever owned was a Peavey Backstage 30, a device so devoid of anything resembling gain that it was useful as an amplifier only in the most literal of senses: make the sound louder. Thus, what your guitar sounded like unplugged was exactly what it sounded like through the Peavey, even with the gain pegged — just, well, louder. No tone and certainly no distortion of any kind. The duty of reproducing something that sounded like rock fell to the Boss HM-2 distortion pedal. The HM-2 was the tonal equivalent of the kind of B horror movie that might give Ozzy Osbourne a starring role, with a Halloween-safe color scheme and a hard-edged distortion that nevertheless enabled the tapping and harmonics that were the currency of the day.
The Backstage 30 currently rates a charitable 6.3 for sound quality on Harmony Central. The HM-2 rates a beneficent 7.9. Averaging these two scores, my tonal IQ for the first ten years of my guitar career stands at an impressive 7.1. By the time I graduated college, I had been playing eight years and could reel off Eruption even better than I can now. Yet I was still unaware that distortion really came from amps.
Soap Opera of Tone
Not all this ignorance was my fault. In fact, one of the things that’s always bothered me about the soap opera-like history of the guitar establishment is the implicit requirement for new players to study it before any of the products make any sense. It’s a long and impenetrable plotline of manufacturers and tradition that informs almost all aspects of modern guitar culture. Bought a guitar with a double cutaway? Notch one for Fender. Digging on that humbucking pickup, a sensible design that actually makes your guitar playable in a bar with neon lighting? Notch one for Gibson. Every guitar or amp is a reissue or a remake or a clone of some aging dinosaur that we’re all supposedly intimately familiar with.
I can see how it was obvious to someone like Eddie Van Halen, growing up in the ’60s, that a Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall was the sound of rock. In fact, I recall an interview with Eddie where he explained that his paradigm-shifting installation of a humbucking pickup in the Stratocaster-style body of a home-made axe was an attempt to achieve the sound of a Les Paul in a tremolo-equipped guitar. But what do you tell a kid like me who grew up in the aftermath of Eddie himself, an age of spandex and pointy headstocks, when everyone already played Stratocaster copies with humbuckers, and the only pertinent question seemed to be Jackson or Kramer? I had no idea what a Les Paul even sounded like, much less that the Van Halen sound was its spiritual descendent. But I could certainly tell you based on tone alone when I was listening to Eddie or Warren or George, even if it was a song I’d never heard. With so much historical baggage to carry, a beginner could be excused for not having covered the PhD-level American Studies courses necessary for conversing intelligently with a guitar or amp salesman.
Shopping in an Ultra World
So what’s a tonal newbie like me to do? Play a bunch of amps, of course. Be they tube or transistor, point-to-point or circuit board, US or British, the time is nigh to get my grubby mitts on a fair selection of sound-amplifying, tone-shaping devices and find out what I’ve been missing all these years. Ideally, such exploration would happen in an environment free of ticking clocks, clingy salespeople, and noisy customers. Fat chance, right?
Improbably, there exists such a place here in New York, and it is called Ultrasound.
Ultrasound is actually a rehearsal studio, noted by local bands for its ample backline of vintage and boutique amps that can be had for as little as thirty or forty bucks an hour. Both a reggae guy and a hip-hop guy who are friends of mine knew the Ultrasound name as soon as I mentioned it. Show up with your axe and a sixer of Schlitz, and for two hours you’re as richly amplified as Bon Jovi. Among other things, Ultrasound owns not one but two Dumble Overdrive Specials, amps so fetishized by those who know amps that surviving models fetch upwards of $20,000 in the unlikely event they do change hands. While I highly doubt that the Dumbles are available for public fondling for the price of two lap dances, just about any other amp you can imagine really is. And if you find one you like, Ultrasound doubles as a dealer — and in one case, an exclusive distributor — for many of the amps they stock in their rooms. Not only that, but up to six hours of rehearsal time is deductible from the tab for the amp you ultimately purchase. It’s such a better arragement than the local music megastore, it’s just silly.
Ken Volpe, the sales manager at Ultrasound, hooked me up with a plush, acoustically treated love nest of amplifier porn, piled from wall to ceiling with tube-powered goodness. Nary a transistor was to be found, and even circuit boards were sparse. There majority of these beauties were point-to-point-wired examples of amplifier perfectionism. A quick cocktail napkin estimation suggested that over $75,000 worth of vintage and boutique tone and cabinetry awaited my eager fingers, if only there were enough hours to play them all.
Since of course there were not, and since perception is highly mutable anyway, I’d be recording the demos through a handy MXL USB.006 microphone for later scrutiny. While I’m aware that a Shure SM57 is the de facto transducer for recording guitars, I was looking for simplicity. The MXL is digital and bus-powered, so there’s no preamp to lug around, and no drivers to install — just plug into the Powerbook, and go. The MXL even comes with a cool zip-up pouch that contains a 10-foot USB cable and a small, though flimsy, tripod. Cheap and functional, kind of the Old Navy of field recording.
In collecting sound samples, I used no effects, eq, or compression of any kind. The only digital post-processing was an occasional volume boost or cut when a particular clip was either too soft or too loud. As any guitarist knows, clean sounds have a much wider dynamic range than dirty sounds, and matching levels between the two can be a challenge. That said, these small volume adjustments were done via software and had no effect on tone color.
Thanks to this difficulty, you’ll hear the occasional (ok, ok — frequent) clipping in the recordings. We had much to do and limited time in which to do it, so I didn’t fuss over this too much. If the tone of the amp was recognizable, I let it ride. As it says on the jacket of the original Woodstock vinyl album, enjoy these imperfections as you would the wrinkles in fine leather.
You’ll also occasionally hear a phasey sound in certain recordings — that’s me inadvertently walking between the mic and the amp while juggling the tasks of playing, adjusting knobs, and recording. For the reasons stated above, I took this in stride.
Finally, if the amp had reverb, I left it on. I tend to like a little reverb most of the time, so this roughly approximates how I’d use the amp in a real-world setting.
And now, without further delay (but occasionally a little reverb), the candidates:
The Cornford Hellcat was the first amp we played and it impressed out of the gate with its terrific clean-tone transient response. At medium gain settings on the clean channel, the Cornford was a Sly Stone-inspired ’70s funk trip. In fact, funky chord comping turned out to be such a revealing test of the amp’s responsiveness that we ended up playing a similar riff through all the amps for comparison. Behind this percussive action, the reverb provided a bed of pleasantly inky blackness — among the more natural-sounding spring reverbs I’ve heard.
Clicking over to the modern channel, fat-bottomed crunch tones were available from 50% gain on up. At maximum gain, the Hellcat produced waves of lush harmonics and tight, defined bass that inspired an instant funk metal party on the wound strings. Indeed, once the riffs started flowing it was difficult to stop playing the Hellcat, and we logged a good 15 minutes here alone.
In the process, we noticed that the amp is voiced somewhat bright overall — the cleans lean toward country twang, and the drive tones can be crispy, especially if the treble control is abused. Even pegging the bass knob didn’t really bring the thump the way it did on many of the other amps. This could pose a problem for bright-sounding guitars like the Washburn, and soloing in the upper register, while no doubt colorful, did lack the girth of some of the other amps we tested. Given these observations, we wished we’d had a Les Paul on hand for comparison.
Bruno Lead Man 60
Like Cornford, Bruno Amps are the definition of boutique: conceived by perfectionists, built by hand, point-to-point wired, with no circuit boards present, and priced to do some damage. They’re made in New York by designer Tony Bruno — a New York name if there was one — and Ultrasound is the exclusive distributor. I had heard about them and was eager to try one.
The Lead Man 60, the high gain model, seemed like the obvious choice for the kind of music I play. Like the Hellcat, the Lead Man’s character became obvious the moment I plugged in. The amp’s distinct and presumably intentional emphasis on midrange frequencies remained even after dialing in a traditional scoop with the tone controls, and it only became more pronounced as the gain was cranked up.
And there was gain aplenty. Medium-drive tones were powerful and direct, in a Summer of 69 kind of way, yet chord tones remained uniquely articulate. At maximum gain, the Bruno produced a wall of distortion and facile harmonic squeal, along with one of the most unique overdrive sounds I’ve ever heard without effects processing. The Lead Man’s maximum gain tones were squishy and clipped, with an angry, almost tuned wah-style resonance which you can hear clearly in the accompanying sound samples. Note that this resonance is not the aforementioned phase effect of me stepping between the mic and the amp — this is a legitimate component of the Lead Man’s sound. Low notes were bathed in ’60s fuzz which added even more character.
Clean sounds were full-bodied and present in a way that would probably work well in any pop or rock mix. In fact, an interesting attribute of the Lead Man is that it recorded well. Its emphasis on midrange tones means that even limited-range playback systems — like laptop speakers, for example — may get a comparatively more accurate picture of the Lead Man than some of the other amps in this roundup.
The Diezel VH4‘s odd industrial design initially made it hard to discern knob position, but after a few MC Escher moments, we appreciated the extensive flexibility on offer. The independent tone, gain, and volume controls for each of the amp’s four channels enabled us to dial in customized sounds with matched levels across the board. That’s great for performance situations, and not so easy to achieve with other amps. The front panel LEDs also made it easy to see with just a glance which channel was live at any given moment.
Like its predecessors, the Diezel’s character was not shy in introducing itself. With a healthy emphasis on bass frequencies, the VH4 was great for both warm blues soloing and harmonic-fueled, Zakk Wylde madness. While there was a bit of high-gain fuzz on the lower strings, the VH4’s bass response was largely controlled and articulate, even at heavy gain settings. Drop-tuners take note. In the upper registers, the tones were round and full, and largely free of shrill or harsh overtones.
Clean sounds were smoky and warm, which made them great for blues and jazz. At the same time, I couldn’t see the VH4 doing pop or country jangle as well as some of the other amps we played. And this illustrates the essential difficulties faced by even ultra-high-quality amps such as these. Unless you’re interested in a modeling amp and willing to deal with upgradeable firmware and a thousand tweakable parameters, classic analog designs do seem to have unique personas that even aggressive eq settings won’t completely obscure.
I don’t know if it’s coincidence that Roccaforte means “hard rock” in Italian (literally “strong rock”), but the name is entirely appropriate. The Roccaforte HG100 produced the most balanced, solid, and no-nonsense rock tones of any of the amps we played. In fact, maxing the gain and dropping the E string to D produced a startlingly accurate Unchained. Ditto for Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love. And Mean Street. And pretty much anything else from the golden age of the Red and White Striped One.
Roccaforte are clearly aware of the HG100’s brown-sound capabilities, as the Roccaforte site includes a variety of early ‘Halen sound samples (albeit with a distortion pedal kicked in, as they indicate in the production notes). One thing I always liked about Eddie’s upper-register tone was that it was never small and thin, especially on Fair Warning, and the Roc reproduces this faithfully. The HG100’s beefy girth had even my skinny-bottomed Washburn N4 renouncing its twang.
This extra heft comes at a small price, as the amp can easily lapse into fuzz tones on the lower strings with the bass knob at 50% or higher. But its overall pedal tone and power chord performance was still the most classically metal of the bunch. In fact, we were so satisfied with the Roc’s high-gain sounds that we didn’t experiment too much with lower-gain tones. The ones we did achieve were fine enough, and probably deserving of more knob time than we gave them.
Hot Cat 30
I resisted doing my homework on the amp farm at Ultrasound, both because there were simply too many options to research effectively, but also because I wanted to keep a tabula rasa mentality going in. It’s amazing what a few Harmony Central reviews can do to kill your objectivity on a subject as fragile as tonal preference. That said, the Hot Cat 30 from Bad Cat Amps continued the tradition of announcing its intentions at the doorstep.
I don’t know if the Hot Cat is considered a blues amp, but its wide midrange hump and gritty overdrive was straight outta Chicago. The Hot Cat we played was a head, not a combo, and it was running through the same Diezel cab with Celestion Vintage 30s as most of the amps we demoed. But there was a lack of very low bass and very high extension that gave it more of a “small box” sound.
However, for the fat, greasy midrange tones it produced, which extended all the way into pleasantly chunky heavy overdrive, this seemed totally appropriate. At high gain settings, the Cat didn’t quite approach metal, but the tones were full and satisfying, with enough harmonic response to produce the occasional squeal, albeit with somewhat greater effort than on the other amps we tested.
Mildly driven crunch tones were also one of the Cat’s strengths, present and jangly without being sloppy. If I were playing a juke joint with BB, and especially if I owned an ES-335, this is the cat I’d grab.
Two Rock Topaz
All I knew about Two Rock going in was that John Mayer plays them. And that alone was enough to perform the Jedi mind trick on me. From the first few notes I played, the Two Rock Topaz’s round baritone sounds and smooth, singing midrange clearly evoked the floppy-haired one.
Much of this midrange bloom was due to the Topaz’s clever mid boost switch, which we had unknowingly engaged the entire time. The mid boost produced not only Mayeresque blues sounds, but surprisingly passable archtop jazz tones, as you can hear in the accompanying sound samples. Likewise, the Topaz’s funk tone was more disco-suave than the colorful grit of the Hellcat. Think Roger Moore-era Bond — or perhaps the Lido Deck of the Love Boat on luau night.
With such an array of gentlemanly clean sounds on tap, we were hardly prepared for what happened when we switched to the lead channel and cranked the gain: massive, roaring overdrive that was definitely a Heavier Thing. Harmonics leaped from the fretboard at the slightest provocation. Mid-register and upper-register sounds on the unwound strings were solid and powerful with no hint of twang. Here again, the huge bass response produced ample fuzz, especially on the lower strings, especially on the neck pickup, but it was in character with the Topaz’s buttery complexion and not at all unpleasant.
In retrospect, the Topaz’s massive lead-channel bass response was probably the result of our unwitting use of the mid-boost feature, and anyone serious about this amp should probably spend some time comparing its mid-boosted and non-mid-boosted sounds at different drive levels. Nevertheless, it’s a testament to the Topaz’s versatility that we were hardly disappointed upon discovering this oversight. In fact, we were so busy playing that we also completely forgot to dial in any medium-gain crunch sounds. The amp succeeding in making the bright Washburn sound almost Bigger Than Its Body, and that’s no mean feat.
The Matchless Chieftain was a great example of the benefits of the tabula rasa approach. The pot-luck nature of plugging in and seeing what happens leads you to valuable experimentation that you might otherwise not attempt in a more analytical frame of mind. In this case, the Matchless produced high-class jangly clean tones that the Arcade Fire would kill for. Diming the gain knob on the Matchless sounded like some of the higher gain amplifiers did at crunch settings, except with the unusually responsive artificial harmonic sensitivity of a true high gain amp. In addition, the amp retained a degree of touch-sensitivity at these drive settings that exceeded many of the other amps we played.
One thing we noticed right away was the Chieftain’s unusually bright character, even with the treble and presence turned down. While this quality was fine for the Rod Stewart and Stones riffs the Chieftain immediately inspired us to play, there were definitely some ear-splitting moments that had us dialing down the presence even further. The N4, with its bright Bill Lawrence L-500L bridge pickup, is probably not the best guitar for this amp, and we again wished we’d had a Les Paul on hand for its darker hues.
Nevertheless, the Chieftain was a class act all the way, and given the right pairing of guitar and musical genre, it offered sounds not attainable from any of the other amps.
By this point we’d spent over two hours at Ultrasound and blood sugar was dropping precipitously. With energy left for one more amp, we decided to make it a matched pair and hit the other Cornford. The first thing we noticed about the MK50H is that it’s a lot louder than the Hellcat. Clearly both the Hellcat’s 35 watts and the MK50H’s 50 are conservatively rated. We couldn’t make it higher than 3 on the Hellcat’s master volume without clipping the digital microphone we were using to take sound samples, and on the MK50H we couldn’t go higher than about 2. This was additionally problematic because most of these amps only produced sound at all above maybe 1.5 on the master dial. Below that, either the electronics or maybe just the Fletcher-Munson curve reduced the amp’s output to nothing.
After finding that vanishing point on the MK50H, another problem became clearer. The attractive growl of the MK50’s high gain sound was marred by a distinct and unwelcome clipping sound during single-note runs, and topped off with an impenetrably Guinness-sized helping of fuzz. You can hear this clearly in the accompanying sound files, and it’s significant enough that it led us to suspect something might be wrong with the amp. No amount of fiddling with the amp’s bass controls — both Bass and Resonance — would make it go away. Which is too bad, because the MK50’s high-gain tone itself was handsome. At full drive, the MK50’s sound was squishy and brown, and harmonics were nearly as present as they were on the Hellcat. Its overall profile was rounder than the Hellcat, and potentially a better match for brighter instruments. Reducing the gain to mild crunch levels thankfully solved the clipping problem, and produced smooth, radio-friendly rock tones in the process.
A final gripe with the MK50H was its complex switching system. The MK50 is, in reality, a single-channel amp with a foot-switchable overdrive that simulates dual-channel operation. The inevitable volume disparity caused by activating the overdrive requires an additional master volume control and footswitch button to tame it. Thus, switching between dirty and clean sounds requires a two-step and may still not result in matched levels. That said, I believe the MK50H’s successor, the MK50 MKII, may provide more straightforward operation.
Ultimately, the MK50H was a problematic package with obvious potential for greatness. If the Cornford “sound” is a combination of brown-sounding gain, growly mids, and effortless artificial harmonic availability, I look forward to playing more of these unique British creations.
A Bottle of White, A Bottle of Red
I took my company wine tasting a few years ago, and I’m even less knowledgeable about fruits of the vine than I am about guitar tone. I remember thinking that despite the multifarious gustatory sensations we experienced, none of what we sampled tasted like milk. In other words, these variously great bottles were all vastly more alike to the non-initiate than they were different. In similar fashion, I expected to lack the palatal refinement to make categorical distinctions between the amps at Ultrasound. I expected to lean heavily on the field recordings to make any kind of informed decision. Boy was I wrong. The individual characters of the amps I played were shockingly discernible, often within a matter of seconds. I and my friend Adam, who is a guitarist, and who I enlisted as cameraman for the day, had surprisingly strong and similar reactions to each.
If you’ve never demoed an amp in a rehearsal studio setting, you don’t know what you’re missing. Although the clock is still ticking, the distinct feeling of paying for the time creates a much more relaxed atmosphere to get to know the gear that’s the next best thing to installing it in your bedroom. The staff at Ultrasound did occasionally pop in to let us know our time was running low, but given the Al Gore-inspired snowstorm raging outside, the schedule was actually empty and we signed on for an hour longer than we’d initially planned.
I’ve been to guitar boutiques with buzzer security and I’ve played $50,000 Steinways in showrooms on 57th Street presided over by salespeople in formalwear — it’s not the same. Those environments are set up for sales, and you, the musician, can always feel someone’s eyeballs on your back. On the other hand, Ultrasound’s primary business is rehearsal, not amp sales, so if you’re there to pay, you can close the door and play all day. If you’re in the market for an amp, and you live in New York, you’d be crazy not to log an hour or two at Ultrasound. (Note that I have no business relationship with Ultrasound — I’m just a happy customer.)
And the winner is…
But all this talking about amps is kind of like writing about food. It never ceases to amaze me when producers of audio gear — or for that matter, recording artists — do not provide sound samples on their site, instead forcing you to rely on adjective-laden marketing prose. What are they selling, shiny metal boxes? So don’t take my word for it, or even just the audio samples we collected. Instead, check out the accompanying 36-minute video for the best introduction to the gear we played, and make up your own mind about the sounds of these diverse but uniformly great amps.
And be sure and tune in to part two of the Amp Shopping series when you’ll find out… which one I took home with me!