TC Electronic HyperGravity Compressor

hyper-gravity-front_WEB-290.jpg Leave it to TC Electronic to deliver an affordable pedal compressor with a twist. For the new Tone Print-enabled HyperGravity, they’ve borrowed the algorithm from their System 6000 studio multiband compressor. The results often sound quite unlike any other stomp comp.

The 6000 is the basis for the HyperGravity’s Spectra digital multiband mode. TC touts its ability to enhance treble tones and more effectively even the output of top and bottom strings. It works—though sometimes nearly too well. I love trebly, squashed compressors with heavy sustain for electric 12-strings, but at times the high-end bloom nearly overpowered the bass. I love this sound. Dogmatic twang fiends might not dig it.

Less sustain equals more immediate attack and a more traditional combination of snap and squish. The wet/dry blend control—a fairly uncommon feature on stompbox compressors—is useful for dialing out that tiny-bit-too-much squish when you hear it. It also evens out the hot high end.

The vintage mode is a tad darker than my Ross-derived comp, and found me wanting for a tone knob. But it works nicely with fuzz and sounded awesomewith treble-heavy settings on a bright Vox amp.

Universal Audio Apollo Twin

uad_Apollo_Twin Universal Audio’s rack-mountable Apollo audio interface was an hit upon its 2012 release. Its stellar preamps, lucid design, and innovative software were perfect fits for project studios requiring great-sounding components and flexible operation, but not a vast number of preamps. (The original Apollo has four, plus additional analog and digital line inputs.)

I was an early adopter—Apollo replaced two more cumbersome systems in my home studio. Two years later I have nothing but praise for the device. My only beef: I wanted a smaller version for mobile work.

Now it’s here. The Apollo Twin is a 6"x6"x2" tabletop unit offering many of its big brother’s best features in a gig-friendly format. It’s a remarkable tool for the digital guitarist, though it requires a recent-model Mac with a Thunderbolt port running OS 10.8 or higher, plus a DAW. (UA currently supports Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Cubase, and Live.) There is no PC-compatible version.

Model Interface The Apollo line offers more than great-sounding A/D/A conversion. It’s also a host for Universal Audio’s plug-ins, allowing you to run more plug-ins than your computer could otherwise handle. Such “assisted” hosting is increasingly unnecessary given today’s faster computers, but Universal Audio’s plug-ins are among the best in the industry. For many users, access to them is a major motive for using Apollo, especially since UA’s plug-ins only run on systems incorporating UA hardware.

The Twin comes in two versions: a dual-processor model that streets for $899 (reviewed here), and a $699 single-processor version. The larger version has twice the processing power, but beyond that, the models are identical. At risk of oversimplifying, I’d guess that the single-processor model is adequate for digital guitar gigs, but that you’d want the larger one for mixing multitrack sessions. See the usage charts on the UA website to determine which version best suits your processor needs.

With its rugged metal enclosure and quality connectors, the Twin is one of the few small-format interfaces that truly seems suited to the physical demands of the job.

UA specializes in officially licensed software versions of classic analog gear, forging deals to create software replicas of many popular studio components, including preamps, EQs, compressors, reverbs, tape simulations, effects, channel strips, and more. Their sound quality is remarkable—UA sets something of a gold standard for modeled effects. However, only a handful of plug-ins is included with an Apollo purchase, and a complete collection would cost many thousands of dollars. (All plug-ins are available for audition as fully functional, but time-limited, demos.)

Another Apollo innovation is the Console app, a virtual mixing board that not only lets you control Apollo hardware from your desktop, but also insert UA plug-ins on input channels upstream from your DAW. With its ultra-low latency, Console can duplicate the effect of recording via hardware preamps and compressors—an impressive feat. (Console only hosts plug-ins created specifically for the UA platform. Meanwhile, UA effects also appear as AU, VST, RTAS, and/or AAX plug-ins within your DAW alongside your other plug-ins.)

The Ins and Outs The Twin records at 24 bits at sample rates up to 192 kHz. It has two input channels, switchable between mic, line, and instrument level, plus the option of eight more digital inputs via optical cable. There are three sets of stereo outs: main, monitor, and headphone. You enter most values via a single large knob. There’s phantom power as needed.

The sound quality is… well, identical to that of the larger Apollo, since the Twin uses the same preamps and SHARC processors. To my sub-golden ears, the studio results are as good as or better than from any convertors I’ve owned.

The difference with my mobile laptop rig is more dramatic. I’m one of those foolhardy souls who performs live on guitar via laptop, and the Twin blows away anything I’ve used in both sound and build quality. Mind you, I’m generally amazed that under-$200 interfaces sound as decent as they do, but the Twin delivers more depth and detail than any budget model I’ve tried.

It can be hard to describe exactly how one audio interface sounds better than another—it’s not as if the cheaper ones lack highs or lows, or demonstrate obvious distortion. But with a better interface, there’s more sense of solidity. There’s just more there there.

Not Built to Break Far too many mobile interfaces are—let’s be blunt—cheap plastic pieces of crap. I’m embarrassed to confess how many I’ve destroyed through clumsy footsteps or hurried packing. (Hint: more than I can count on one hand.) And thank goodness, the Twin doesn’t have one of those horrid octopus-style breakout cables (though it does require the included 12-volt external power supply). With its rugged metal enclosure and quality connectors, the Twin is one of the few small-format interfaces that truly seems suited to the physical demands of the job.

Universal Audio Apollo

I’ve used the review model Twin for my last few live laptop gigs, connecting through the interface to a MacBook Pro running Apple’s MainStage software, and then back out through the Twin to a Boomerang III looper en route to a pair of Fishman LoudBoxes. My tones have more impact and a greater sense of headroom—they simply feel bigger. And it’s reassuring to have an interface on my pedalboard that seems less likely to disintegrate.

Almost Analog The Analog Classic plug-in bundle included with the Twin is modest: You get legacy editions of UA’s 1176 and LA-2A compressors, not the latest versions. There’s an underwhelming light version of Softube’s Amp Room, plus a channel strip and a reverb plug-in that are both a decade past their sell-by dates. However, the included 610-B Tube Preamp adds fine analog burn to any track—it’s perfect for inserting on a Console input channel as described above.

There’s not nearly enough room here to cover all the plug-ins UA sells separately, though I can’t resist calling out a few addictive favorites: The EMT plates are astonishingly deep and detailed recreations of those classic hardware reverbs. The simulated tape machines—a Studer multitrack and an Ampex mastering 2-track—add warmth and character to anything you run through them. You can hear those simulated devices on the audio examples included in the online version of this review.

The Verdict The Apollo Twin is a compact audio interface and plug-in host boasting remarkable sound quality and smartly streamlined features. Paired with a recent-model Mac, it’s powerful enough to anchor a busy project studio, yet compact enough to pop into your gig bag for mobile work. The bundled plug-in collection is modest, but I’d still recommend the Twin even if came with no plug-ins. It earns top marks for audio quality, workmanship, and its many useful and innovative features.

D’Angelico Gramercy SG200 Grand Auditorium

DAASG200X-P At last winter’s NAMM show in Anaheim, California, D’Angelico Guitars unveiled a line of steel-string flattop acoustics with names like Gramercy, Mercer, Lexington, and Madison. These are, of course, references to locales in Manhattan, where the legendary luthier John D’Angelico built the finest archtops to order from the 1930s until his death in 1964.

With its onboard Fishman electronics, the Asia-built Gramercy is a very different guitar from those classic original archtops. And apart from D’Angelico’s iconic art deco headstock, it doesn’t really resemble anything that the master guitarmaker ever built. But after I put the Gramercy through its paces (and in spite of the very high expectations that come along with the D’Angelico name), I found it to be an agreeable guitar in its own right.

Fancy Meets Subdued The grand auditorium-sized Gramercy is made from a nice selection of all-solid tonewoods. The top is Sitka spruce with scalloped-X bracing, and the back and sides are rosewood. The mahogany neck is fitted with a rosewood fretboard, and the bridge is rosewood too.

The Gramercy responds equally well to all types of strumming approaches, from boom-chuck to crisp Freddie Green-inspired comping.

At five pounds, nine ounces, you can’t say the Gramercy is lightweight, but the craftsmanship is very good. The polyurethane gloss finish is free from orange peel and other cosmetic defects, and all of the binding is tight and flush with the body. The frets are cleanly dressed and smooth at their edges. The bone nut and saddle are immaculately cut. Inside, everything appears tidy too. The bracing and kerfing are free from traces of excess glue and rough unfinished surfaces.

The Gramercy is available in five different finishes: natural, vintage sunburst, cherry sunburst, black, or a very contemporary grey black. Our review model came in natural, which best showcases the soundboard’s fine-grained, cream-colored spruce and the dark-chocolate, quartersawn rosewood on the back and sides—a very nice set of boards. The guitar is handsome, but to some players the trademark headstock, with its ornate inlay work, mirrored truss-rod cover, pointed scroll, and chevron-shaped machine heads, might look out of place on an otherwise restrained and traditionally appointed flattop.

Clear Up Top The Gramercy has a C-shaped neck with a slim profile that’s super comfortable and familiar—especially for players who typically play electric. But the action on our review model was higher than optimal, making it a strain to play barre chords for extended periods and inhibiting fast picked single-note lines. This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. A good guitar tech could certainly lower the action. But it’s hard not to expect a better setup for a guitar that’s nearly a thousand bucks.

Acoustically, the Gramercy lacks some of the resonance and liveliness of a fine grand concert model, and the bass register is a tad underwhelming. But the Gramercy does deliver impressively present mids and clear treble tones. Harmonically speaking, the note-to-note definition and separation are good. And in this context, at least, the buzz-free higher action pays bonus dividends.

Any sonic shortcomings are often compensated for by a guitar’s versatility, and in that regard the Gramercy responds equally well to all types of strumming approaches, from boom-chuck to crisp Freddie Green-inspired comping. When fingerpicking—in both standard and altered tunings—the high action made me feel less nimble, but single-note lines had good presence and definition.

Comprising an under-saddle pickup and onboard preamp, the Gramercy’s Fishman INK-4 electronics package is a nice fit for the guitar. Mounted to the upper bass-side bout, the low-profile preamp is less obtrusive than most. Plugged into a Fender Acoustasonic, the Fishman system sounds terrific, very natural and free of extraneous noise. The bass, middle, and treble controls offer more than enough tonal flexibility for any situation, while the brilliance control adds zing to the guitar’s already sparkling personality. The INK-4’s built-in tuner, which turns green when the string is at pitch, is very readable.

The Verdict Purists and collectors might not have time for D’Angelico apart from an archtop made on the Lower East Side. But those without such allegiances will find a nice modern flattop in the Gramercy—a guitar that can be played in a variety of styles and stands stage-ready, thanks to the well-matched Fishman electronics. For the price, it does lack some of the complexity and bass richness you’d expect from a good grand auditorium—a body shape often chosen for its strength in those regards. But the ringing high-mids mean it can sit nicely in contemporary studio settings. If you like a little touch of Downtown glam with your otherwise functional flattop, the Gramercy is a great place to start.

Ibanez Talman Prestige TM1730M

ITM1730MX-P Introduced in 1994, the original Ibanez Talman remained in production just a few years before it was discontinued. It arrived on a wave of interest in offbeat ’60s models. And along with guitars like the Charvel Surfcaster, it attracted shoegazers, indie-, and noise-rock artists looking for a synthesis of modern stability and vintage aesthetics. In the short time it was produced, and in the years since, the Talman gained a quietly devoted cult following.

While the Talman name lived on in a line of acoustic hybrids, the TM1730M reviewed here marks the first return to the original solidbody configuration since 1998. And while the 1730 and its Telecaster-inspired cousins the TM1702 and TM1803M are distinctly vintage-Fender inspired, electronics and hardware including Seymour Duncan Five-Two pickups and Gotoh locking machine heads makes them wonderfully playable and practical instruments that convey classic—and classy—style with a visual vibe that’s very much their own.

Through a crunchy Orange OR50 and even various solid-state practice amps, the Talman never sounded brittle.

Throwback Body, Fresh Hardware Crafted in Japan, the new Talman Prestige series is very well made. The bolt-on 25.5" maple neck has a familiar-feeling “C” profile, 22 medium-sized frets, and black dot-inlays. The ITL-PRO tremolo bridge and block assembly is situated in a body cavity so you can adjust the spring tension by removing the back plate. Each bridge saddle is individually adjustable for height and string length, and with the easy-to-access bullet truss-rod, intonation chores are a snap. The tremolo arm screws into place and will remain in a fixed position with a complete clockwise rotation. The five-way pickup selection switch is configured like a Stratocaster’s, but there is only one tone knob to adjust the output. This knob rests, in a unique configuration, on the input jack plate, with the remaining controls mounted atop a two-ply black and white pickguard. The official finish label is “Vintage White,” although it’s closer to cream than an authentically yellowed white. Nevertheless, it looks great and is a beautiful compliment to the maple neck.

A Tone Before Its Time If you’re like me and play mostly classic Fender models, the Talman will feel immediately familiar. I’m a big Stratocaster guy, so it’s difficult to avoid making comparisons between the two models. But before I ever plugged in, it was hard not to miss how uniquely comfortable this guitar is: the length of neck in relation to the body, the balance, the light-but-substantial alder body—they all conspire to make this guitar feel uncommonly natural whether you have it slung around your shoulder or you’re sitting on the couch.

My only very minor (and highly personal) complaint about the design is that the vibrato arm sits a little high for my taste. I’d rather not stray so far from the strings just to add a quick vibrato flourish. It does, however, provide the leverage to generate deeper pitch warble, which is great for My Bloody Valentine chord glides. If you want to drop the arm closer to the body, adjusting the spring tension or swapping the arm out entirely are possibilities. Tuning stability was also excellent when I put the tremolo arm to work. The Gotoh machine heads held fast under the strain of aggressive vibrato work, in slack tunings, and in combinations of the two.

With a ’65 Twin Reverb reissue dialed up clean, the Seymour Duncan Five-Two pickups were clear and bell-like. The alnico 2 and 5 magnets conspired to deliver snappy bass response, with a slightly tame and tethered but clear treble from the high strings. Paired with the Twin Reverb, the Talman dished up a punchy flavor fit for the Stones heartier blues entrees. The overtones in moveable open chords sounded out and resonated clearly—a total delight with a healthy heap of amp reverb. And though pickups are a tad darker compared to my Stratocaster’s Fender Custom Shop ’69 pickups, the Duncan single-coils are balanced and colorful.

Moving from the Twin Reverb to other amps highlighted the Talman’s agreeable, more flexible nature. Through a crunchy Orange OR50 and even various solid-state practice amps, the Talman never sounded brittle. The guitar is also very well suited to pedals. Paired with an Analogman Sun Face, the Talman sawed through early David Gilmour leads—sounding rich and slicing, and generating impressive sustain in the process. This environment also revealed the high quality of controls like the volume pot, which has a nice, even taper and the sensitivity to wrangle the Sun Face from banshee scream to overdriven growl.

The Verdict A lot of folks might be disappointed that Ibanez took such a Fender-inspired—some might say conservative—approach to resurrecting the Talman. And who knows? Maybe a revival of the sparkle-painted, lipstick-tubed ’90s models is just around the corner (hint, hint, Ibanez). But whatever the Talman Prestige lacks in flash it makes up in rock solid playability, comfort, quality, and great sounds. And while the nearly $1,200 bucks you’ll part with to make it your own isn’t small change, this is a guitar that leaves you yearning for little once you’ve plugged it in.

Ampeg PF-50T

Ampeg’s huge impact on the world of bass amplification is no secret. The SVT is a standard onstage rig and the B-15 is a staple in recording studios the world over. Not only has Ampeg set the bar high for the rest of the amp realm over the years, but for themselves in their quest to push forward in designs and features, yet maintain a respectful nod to the tone and builds that made them so significant in the first place. Enter the new all-tube PF-50T—a flexible, rock-solid amp that captures the spirit of Ampeg classics of the past, and offers an innovative feature that should be an industry standard. Same but Different The “PF” in PF-50T is short for Portaflex—a salute to Ampeg’s iconic flip-top B-15 head. The design of the PF-50T is super slick, yet still brings back memories of the old days with its two massive transformers and a steel cage that houses five tubes on top. Not to be confused with the B-15 Heritage (the flip-top reissue in the family), the PF-50T has been engineered to bridge the gap between the B-15 and the SVT with moderate power, tube warmth, and more than a hint of saturation available.

The definition really pops, and clean, articulate fingerstyle players will be right at home.

The 20-pound PF-50T has two inputs—one for passive instruments and the other with a 15 dB cut for active instruments. The control set is easy enough: gain, Ampeg’s well-known ultra-hi and ultra-low EQ buttons, bass, midrange, a 5-way midrange sweep, treble, and, finally, a master volume. The rear panel is also uncomplicated, with the exception of one very cool feature: twin XLR outs.

Why would Ampeg put two DIs on the PF-50T? Well, the first DI can be run either pre or post EQ. The second DI is an output straight from the transformer, which is basically what you would send to a cabinet. Let’s say you are allowed two channels in the FOH console at your next gig. Your engineer can have both your untouched clean signal and your dialed-in tone to work with. Or say you’re silent recording at home with the PF-50T (no cab required!).

You can run both DIs at the same time—one clean and one dirty. You don’t have to have a splitter to lay down one clean take while you are using the amp to saturate tone. Whether you’d like to blend the signal or need to fix something later on the clean track, the option is there. Pretty killer.

It’s in There When powering up the amp, the indicator light illuminates red in standby mode and purple for go mode. I plugged in a few instruments for this review: a vintage Fender P, a Music Man StingRay, and a Fender Bass VI. And to keep it in the family, I paired the PF-50T with a 1965 Ampeg 1x15.

I let the PF-50T warm up for a good 20 minutes. The glow of the two massive 6L6s, the 12AU7, and the pair of 12AX7s was a welcome sight for an old soul like myself. (Word of caution: The steel housing for the tubes gets very hot.) The bass I sort of had to plug in first was the vintage P strung with flats. I eased the bass to 1 o’clock, engaged the ultra-low switch, and left the rest of the controls at noon. For a moment, I closed my eyes and I was in the snake pit at Hitsville, U.S.A., hoping to open them and see Smokey Robinson writing lyrics next to me. It was all the vintage warmth you would expect. And when scrolling through the mid sweeps, it’s a snap finding a sweet spot to your liking.

But what if you aren’t a rock or Motown sort of player? Well, the PF-50T can produce great slap tones too. Engaging both the ultra-hi and ultra-low switches, scooping some of the mids, and with bass and treble both around 3 o’clock, the amp sings a different tune. The definition really pops, and clean, articulate fingerstyle players will be right at home. The active StingRay was a littlemuch for the amp because its tone is a bit pointed to begin with, but I was able to tone things down a touch with the EQ and keep its snap and pop with a great balance of rumble.

The Fender VI was a lot of fun with the PF-50T when I dimed the gain and pushed the amp into nasty mode. The tube saturation was really pleasing and the user-friendly EQ made the 6-string jump out pretty quickly. I should again stress the coolness factor of being able to run the dual DIs, especially with an instrument like the VI that lends itself to the new era of guitarless duos.

The Verdict It’s not hard to fall in love with the tube tone of the PF-50T. For all this amp gives bassists, however, there are some features Ampeg left off that some players are accustomed to—like an effects loop, tuner out, and headphone out. While it might not boast a host of bells and whistles, the PF-50T excels where it’s supposed to. It’s a straightforward amp with plenty of power and tube-tone nirvana for the stage or studio. Don’t take my word for it—get to an iso room and test this little gem out yourself.

Carl Martin Octa-Swtich MK3

May15_LNU_CarlMartinOctaMk3_WEB Although the Octa-Switch MK2 still feels fresh in our memory, Carl Martin recently released the MK3, a streamlined edition of the popular MK2. At a street price of around $427, it’s easily the most affordable switcher in our roundup.

The MK3 is more pedalboard-friendly than the two previous incarnations—primarily because it utilizes two rows of footswitches, rather than one long row. And while Carl Martin has stuffed a lot of functions into less space, the jacks are still spaced out wide enough to patch in the right-angle plugs used for most pedalboard applications (something I wasn’t able to do with the other two switchers in this roundup).

I was a little surprised when I opened the box and didn’t see a power supply. But the Octa-Switch MK3 is compatible with a standard 9V adapter, and I just daisy chained it to my pedalboard’s existing power supply. (Unlike the MK2, the MK3 can’t be powered by batteries.)

The Octa-Switch MK3 offers eight loops (the last loop is stereo) and eight banks—which should be more than enough for most players. In addition to the eight loop footswitches, there’s a switch for bypassing the unit completely.

The MK3 has a decidedly mechanical, analog feel—largely due to the absence of a readout and the eight dip switches above each preset footswitch. The dipswitches correspond to the eight send/returns and the pedal; you route through them. You determine which pedals make up a given preset by turning the dipswitches off or on. I’m not a huge fan of dipswitches, but here the design is more intuitive, and arguably faster, than scrolling through a small screen. On the top corner of the control panel are eight small blue LEDs that correspond to loops 1-8 and light up to show which loop is activated on a selected preset. There are also two rows of dipswitches for external switching of amp channels or amplifier reverb. These, too, can be assigned to work with a selected loop.

It took me about a minute to program a relatively simple rig consisting of a Mesa/Boogie Trem-O-Verb and several pedals. For a rhythm preset, I used a Boss CE-2 and Ibanez AD-9 going into the amp’s clean channel. For leads, I created two presets—a Mad Professor Bluebird overdrive/delay going into the amp’s clean channel and an Ibanez TS-9 used as a boost going into the amp’s high gain channel. I also used a Boss TU-2 tuner, though, oddly, there is no dedicated tuner out on the Octa-Switch MK3. The presets all worked flawlessly and switching was immediate and pop free.

The MK3 lacks MIDI, the ability to change the order of pedals in a chain, and the ability to switch on individual pedals while running a preset. But while it may lack some of the features that distinguish and add wow factor to the Boss and RJM, I didn’t mind not having those options. If I knew I’d need an additional boost for a lead preset to suit a different playing environment, I’d simply add the boost to an existing preset or program a new one on the spot. It doesn’t take more than a second to flick the dipswitch. Above all else, the MK3 is fast and easy.

Though it may lack some fancy digital features, the MK3 is capable of a lot more than just switching pedals on and off. You can use it as a killer A/B switcher to route two guitars into two separate amps, with each pair attached to its own group of effects. Just bypass the standard in/out controls and patch everything through the loop jacks.

The mechanical simplicity of the Octa-Switch MK3 is a beautiful thing. The intuitive design means neophytes can get started fast without consulting a manual. And it’s simple enough to make troubleshooting a breeze in performance situations. In an era in which many switchers are as complex as some multi-effects units, the MK3’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get layout cuts through all the frivolities. This bad boy lets you just program the configurations you’ll actually need rather than bog you down with hypothetical possibilities you’ll never actually use.

MXR 5150 Overdrive

EVH5150-large MXR’s Eddie Van Halen signature phaser, flanger, and wah pedals made elements of Eddie’s tone available and affordable to the masses. But one of the most critical components in creating his “Brown Sound” is copious amp overdrive. If you don’t have a vintage Marshall Super Lead or an EVH amp (both expensive propositions), the right overdrive pedal is an effective shortcut. And the MOSFET-driven MXR 5150 Overdrive—which was designed by Bob Cedro with input from Mr. Van Halen himself—is a stab at harnessing Eddie’s hot-rodded, high-gain sounds in a pedal.

That’s no mean feat, given that EVH has traditionally been an amp overdrive dude. But the MXR often hits the mark through the use of a flexible set of EQ, drive, and gating controls—as well as a multi-gain-stage design that makes the pedal versatile beyond strictly Eddie-centric applications.

The extra clarity had me exploring sonorities and chord clusters that I ordinarily wouldn’t touch with this much gain.

Bigger Box, Bolder Sounds The 5150 is reminiscent of MXR’s killer big box effects from the ’70s as well as the more recent MXR EVH-117 Flanger. It’s decked out in Eddie’s classic “racing stripe” livery. (Is it now possible to create an entire signal chain in this paint scheme? If there isn’t a cable yet someone should get on it!) The control panel features a common overdrive control set: output, bass, mid, treble, and gain. But there are also two smaller controls: a mini-button for 'boost' (which actually adds a little gain and compression,) and a small knob and a small knob for MXR’s Smart Gate noise gate that turns yellow when activated.

Diver Brown I tested the 5150 Overdrive with a humbucker-equipped “Super Strat” as well as a traditional, single coil-equipped Stratocaster through the clean channel of a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV. At its lowest gain setting (around 6:30) and with all the tone controls at noon, the MXR turned the Boogie into something more like a cranked tweed Fender—not a stretch, given the Boogie’s design pedigree, but a beautiful, rich distortion sound. Chords took on an aggressive snarl that would excel in a hard rock or classic rock rhythm setting. To get less bite and cleaner tones you need a soft touch, but the fact that approach works is a testament to how dynamic the pedal can be. It’s also surprisingly sensitive: moving the gain up just a hair to around 7 o’clock means a distinct increase in saturation and sustain that’s cool for smoother, more polite lead sounds or heavy rhythm tones.

Move the gain knob to noon and you’re squarely in the distortion camp—verging on the realms of Eddie’s storied in-your-face “Brown Sound.” Here, it’s hard to resist boogie-inflected moves like the lead riff for “Beautiful Girls.” Low, open-string chugs feel punchy and articulate, and the individual notes of chords ring true and clear, which does wonders for big chords with a lot of low-end like Fmaj7#11 or inversions like D/F# and E/G#. The extra clarity found me exploring sonorities and chord clusters that I ordinarily wouldn’t touch with this much gain. For leads, this setting was wicked. Pinch harmonics popped with ease, and tremolo-picked, single-note melodies way up on the fretboard sounded triumphant.

Some of my favorite Van Halen moments occur when Eddie works the shades between clean and dirty sounds in a song, and the MXR is responsive in a way that makes these shades available with a slight shift in guitar volume. And I could move from a massive wall of sound to the familiar Van Halen, quiet, clean-ish rhythm (think of the interlude after the “House of Pain” solo, or the intro of “Drop Dead Legs”) with just a flick of the guitar volume control.

Maxing the gain generates massive sounds that could be mistaken for a raging stack of amps. For modern metal rhythms, the sound is tight and especially potent. Soloing also felt amazingly easy with this much gain, and with the noise gate keeping stray harmonics and noise under control, a lot of inconvenient mistakes became a lot less pronounced! That said, the superb definition and focus of the pedal rewarded precision. Alternate picked, scalar sequences popped with percussiveness like a typewriter in the hands of a transcription wiz. Most other pedals or ultra high-gain amps would turn into a nebulous blob of noise at this point. The 5150 Overdrive stayed exceptionally open and detailed.

The added compression and gain from the 'boost' function adds a slight but perceptible bump (+6 dB.) Predictably, it doesn’t feel quite like a boost in the most familiar sense. Instead it feels more like an additional texture—adding dimension and a little extra harmonic breadth to an already very happening sound.

Noise Police When you use a lot of gain, you get a lot of noise. Usually, I’ll tame the noise (if it can be tamed) via muting techniques. With the 5150 Overdrive’s smart gate engaged, the pedal is so quiet that I sometimes forgot it was on. To really test the gate, I plugged in my Stratocaster, which can be unbearably noisy. It did wonders mitigating the Strat’s pesky hum, even with the gate set at near-minimum levels. The feature is a major plus. After using this pedal for a few weeks, it was almost hard to go back to a gate-less setup.

The Verdict Eddie Van Halen’s playing has always been about inventiveness, and the 5150 takes a pretty inventive approach to the overdrive pedal template. While the 5150 name might imply that it’s strictly a “Brown-Sound-in-a-box” device, it’s far from one-dimensional. This little box can deliver virtually any overdrive/distortion sound with a vengeance.

The 5150 Overdrive’s near $200 price tag might be a little more than consumers are used to from MXR. But the fact that this pedal can decimate many boutique pedals that do much less makes it a killer buy.

Mesa/Boogie Cab Clone


Passive speaker-load boxes let you run your amp into a PA or recording input without miking a cabinet. They’re a great way to capture analog amp sounds without hassle—or broken eardrums.

Mesa Boogie’s new CabClone is a particularly nice load box/compensated D.I. at an equally nice price. It’s solidly built in a tabletop format. You can use it with or without a speaker connected to your amp. A wide-ranging level control provides appropriate output for most recording and PA gear. There are phase and ground-lift toggles, and both XLR and 1/4" output jacks. A specialized EQ stage with three voicing options mimics closed-back, open-back, and vintage-style cabinets. There’s also a headphone out for silent practicing or monitoring.

As with many products in this category, CabClone’s cabinet simulations are more like paintings than hi-res photos. They don’t convey the idiosyncratic resonant peaks and phase-cancelled dips of various miked speakers the way that, say, a good set of speaker impulse responses can. But CabClone’s solid, full-frequency tones work well in many contexts, and they respond well to downstream EQ.

CabClone requires no external power. It comes in 4-, 8-, and 16-ohm models, so be sure to get the one that matches your amp’s speaker-out specs.

Ultimate Ears UE 7 In-Ear Monitors


Arguably, the most important aspect of being comfortable onstage is hearing each instrument clearly. For some, a well-adjusted wedge could do the trick, but the post-gig annoyance of ringing ears could cause long-term hearing problems. The UE7s are Ultimate Ears' solution. They’re aimed at guitarists who need to protect their ears and hear bandmates who might be hard to distinguish in a loud, muddy stage mix.

Each set of UE7s is custom-molded (thanks to a quick visit to a local audiologist). They’re immensely comfortable, even after a four-hour gig. Once the mix was dialed in, the UE7s offered impressive bass response, thanks to a 2-channel setup and built-in crossover.

I doubt any IEM can perfectly replicate a guitar's tone, but I found the UE7's midrange and high-end impressively robust and accurate—perfect for where the guitar sits in the band mix. Admittedly, the price tag may be steep for weekend warriors, but for pro players needing tour-ready IEMs, the UE7s might be the best sub-1K solution out there.

Eden MicroTour


Eden is known for quality bass gear, but usually their products aren’t quite as compact as the MicroTour mini bass amp. Weighing in at just 2.5 lbs., the 2-watt MicroTour looks like a Mini-Me stack. (Its dimensions are 12" x 5.3" x 3.7".) You can power it with either a 15V adaptor (not included) or eight AA batteries. Features include a single 4 1/2" whizzer-cone speaker, an 1/8" headphone jack for silent practice, and simple volume and tone controls.

I plugged in a Fender P, set the MicroTour’s tone knob at noon, and pushed the volume to 10 o’clock. The MicroTour delivered enough juice for pleasant, discernable volume that worked for riffing, but was quiet enough not to bug your family or co-workers down the hall. Don’t expect classic Eden tone or big volume from this little box—it’s just a plastic enclosure with a small speaker and 2 watts of power. (Push the volume beyond 2 o’clock and things get buzzy.) But with the volume around noon, MicroTour lets you to hold your own in a living room jam with your dreadnought-toting buddies.

Portability? Check. The MicroTour fit perfectly into the topside compartment of my Ritter gig bag. This fun and cool-looking little amp lets you power up your bass just about anywhere. At 60 bucks, why not?

XITS 10 Amplifier


Two EL84s and a Celestion Alnico Blue speaker. For most of the guitar-speaking universe, that adds up to something a lot like a Vox AC15. But it doesn’t take much time with the Xits 10 to hear just how far it departs from the old Vox recipe.

To be certain, some things about the Xits 10 do recall the AC15. It’s chimy and bright, and it can be explosively potent when pushed. Yet the Xits also inhabits a unique sonic universe. It’s a bold, bass-rich, and sweetly sparkling, and at extreme settings it’s a thunderous little monster. For rock players who love straight-line Brit crunch—and less dogmatically constrained players who like their bass massive and treble sizzling—the Xits 10 is an intriguing partner in chime.

Devilishy Detailed If you savor ever facet of the amp-construction craft, the Xits 10 is a feast for the senses. Its exterior is a delightful deviation from tweed and black-vinyl norms. The grey linen-patterned vinyl seems to be a nod to the original fawn AC15s (and a few 1950s blazers I’ve coveted). The woolen dot-pattern grille cloth looks and feels a little like a throw rug or sweater cloth—an inspired bit of design irreverence that works unexpectedly well.

Even the speaker baffle and alloy preamp tube enclosures appear color-coordinated, adding cool highlights that complement the deep blue of the Celestion Alnico Blue and the sky-blue highlights in the Xits logo. (We realize these touches have no bearing on how the Xits sounds, but they’re emblematic of the craft and care put into this thing—plus they look bitchin’!)

This amp is tailor-made for bass-less duos, or trios where the bass player tends to venture beyond root notes.

With so many playful design details, it’s easy to imagine Xits mastermind Michael Koski as a groovy design professor turned bespoke furniture builder. Look closer, though, and it becomes just as easy to imagine him as a stern Teutonic lab technician. The ½" Baltic birch plywood cabinet is flawlessly assembled and reinforced by finished hardwood trim. The chassis hood, made from the same finished aluminum as the control plate, reveals a similar fixation with detail. The tubes protrude from precisely machined ports. Nearby are two 1/4" speaker jacks. (The onboard speaker uses one.) There’s also a sturdy 8-/16-ohm switch.

Bright as the Blue Sky Above One thing the Xits 10 is not, however, is a blank slate. That’s not to say it doesn’t sound great clean or work well with pedals—it does. But its cleanest tones still tend to be hot in the highs and fat in the bass. Using the AC15 as a baseline comparison, you’ll find the Xits capable of a far hotter high end and much more bass. In fact, the considerable—if not downright corpulent—low-end is probably be the first thing that will strike you. It’s huge for an amp of this size, and it can sometimes overpower the midrange tones that many folks seek from EL84 amps, even with the bass control near minimum.

Siegmund Doppler Stereo Combo

IMG_0027_WEB Gear reviewers tend to describe new amps in terms of old ones. We rely on stock phrases: “Vox-like chime,” “Blackface-style scoop,” “Marshall-like midrange.” That usually works out fine, because new amps also tend to rely on what’s come before. But comparisons aren’t so easy when confronted with an amp as unique, idiosyncratic, and just plain weird as Siegmund’s massive Doppler combo. I’ve never encountered anything like it, and I bet you haven’t either.

Big and Blingy The Doppler is an imposing beast, weighing in at 70 pounds—think silverface Fender Twin with JBLs, only more so. Like those Twins, it comes with detachable casters—five of them to suit the amp’s trapezoidal shape. The amp is as wide as it is heavy, measuring an impressive 33.5" from left to right. The cabinet is solid pine. The components are mostly high-end NOS stuff, including most of the tubes, and the circuit is immaculately hand-wired on terminal strip. The transformers are from Mercury Magnetics, with the output transformer a custom model and one tube rectifier.

On the outside, bling abounds. Our review model was decked out in faux-alligator Tolex and black leather with gold-plated knobs, vents, screws, and handle hardware. The control panel glows with golden light when you power up. This amp will get you noticed.

It’s an offbeat trem/vibrato effect with strong, almost jerky rhythms and deep modulation, even at modest intensity settings.

Styled for Stereo Doppler’s marquee feature is its stereo sound, but it’s not the sort of stereo effect you encounter on, say, vintage and modern Magnatones. Most amps with stereo trem/vibrato send a modulated version of your signal to one speaker while the dry signal (or an inverted version of the modulated signal) feeds the other speaker, producing a spacious stereo effect.

But here—through a trademarked process called Asymmetric Frequency Soundstage—the signal encounters a crossover circuit that routes lows to the left speaker and highs to the right. Contrasting speakers emphasize the effect: a massive 15" Weber 15A200 for the bass, and a 10" Tone Tubby Silver Bullet for the right. The power tubes for each side also differ, with a single KT66 for the low-end left side and an EL34 for the brighter right. Each side employs two 6SL7s—relatively rare octal preamp tubes that appeared in some early-’60s amps. (They’re admired for their ultra-present, non-compressed sound, and feared for their noisy, microphonic tendencies.)

Wild, Wild Wobble Given Doppler’s unconventional architecture, it’s no surprise that the amp produces unusual vibrato effects. While the dual-frequency arrangement seems inspired by vintage Leslie cabinets, the resulting effect doesn’t sound Leslie-like, or even especially “dopplery.” The modulation is asymmetrical, closer to a Uni-Vibe’s lopsided wobble than the evenly spaced pulses of traditional amp trem. But the tone isn’t very Uni-Vibe-like either. Because separate frequencies are routed to left and right, you don’t get the phasy quality you encounter when identical or overlapping frequency ranges are pitted against each other.

So what does Doppler’s modulation sound like? It’s an offbeat trem/vibrato effect with strong, sometimes jerky rhythms and deep modulation even at modest intensity settings. This striking effect wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Radiohead’s classic albums. The vibrato section has independent rate and depth controls, plus a fast/slow toggle and a rate-indicator LED. You can also connect the included controller pedal via stereo cord to set the rate by foot and switch the vibrato effect on and off. (I recorded the example clips with a matched pair of AKG 414 condenser mics, panning the two signals fully left and right.)

Xotic RC-Booster SH


For the better part of a decade, the RC Booster by Xotic has pleased many 6-stringers who like some hair on their boost. A new collaboration with fusion guru Scott Henderson has created the RCB-SH, a dual-channel version of the flagship pedal. For as much tonal ground that was crammed into the RCB, Xotic didn’t add much in the way of controls. With an additional footswitch and a mini knob, a two-headed beast was born.

Henderson had a few goals with his namesake stomp, and high on that list was transparency and better note definition. Spoiler: Mission accomplished. The blue channel is basically a transparent boost and is stunningly clear and warm. There's less gain than say, a Tube Screamer, and it's way more sensitive to attack—welcome additions for more dynamic players who shuffle between pick and fingers. The red channel, which has a separate gain control, walks that fine line between sweetly singing leads and over-the-top saturation. On the gig, I pretty much left the blue channel on and flipped the red channel on for more soaring lead work. Simply put, this pedal isn’t the equivalent of a heavy-handed tonal facelift, but if your basic tone is already happening, the RCB-SH can surely find a spot on your board.

Test gear: Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul Custom, Dr. Z Z-Lux, Fender Deluxe Reverb

PureSalem El Gordo Review

Gordo_TobaccoBurst_1-main Sacrilegious as it may sound to some, not everyone loves the iconic, ubiquitous electric guitar designs of the 1950s. And while vintage guitars that subvert those norms look killer and cut through the visual clutter, they can also be quirky in less-desirable ways: feedback-prone pickups, neck relief like a ski jump, and non-existent tuning stability, to name a few.

PureSalem Guitars isn’t the only company mining the eccentric side of vintage guitar design these days. But the two-years-young company has consistently delivered quality alongside the quirkiness. El Gordo, a buxom semi-hollow, is a recent addition to PureSalem’s roster of misfits. It’s well built, genuinely versatile, and chock-full of tones from jangly clean to rowdy and raucous.

A Sumo of Its Parts The Gordo is a creative bit of Franken-design that manages to be different without being simply weird. The mahogany body profile borrows from ’60s-era Kents. The classy flame- maple veneer and two-tone sunburst finish add rich visual texture without being ostentatious. A pair of sharp-looking bound eyeholes is a nod to Rickenbacker and Gretsch, while the binding evokes 335 and Les Paul Custom designs. The mahogany neck has a comfortable, modern C-shape. It’s capped by a bound rosewood fingerboard with fancy pearloid block markers and a sculpted headstock design inspired by the Fender Starcaster. The neck is reinforced with a double truss rod for stability and setup flexibility.

El Gordo’s semi-hollow, center-block construction lends thwacking immediacy and chunky mass to chords, but also gives clean tones resonance and a pretty, sparkling airiness.

On paper, that sounds like an odd hodgepodge of design elements. But somehow the juxtaposition of upscale details, cross-brand homage, and quirky retro shapes works, resulting in a unique but approachable instrument.

El Gordo generally feels sturdy and substantial. It’s free of the blemishes and paint blotches often seen on guitars in this price range. And while the factory setup wasn’t exceptional, a few easy adjustments made El Gordo feel friendlier under the fingers.

Functional Kitsch With its bend-friendly 24¾" scale length, satin neck finish, and 12" fretboard radius, El Gordo feels much more athletic and nimble than most of the vintage instruments that inspired it. The roller bridge, expertly cut graphite nut, and mini-Grover tuners maintain tuning stability, even when you cut loose on the Bigsby. (And man, it’s fun to use a Bigsby that stays in tune.)


Pros: Unique styling. Great, often unusual tones. Excellent playability. Vibrato stays in tune.

Cons: Controls are a bit of a reach.

Pure Salem Gordo

El Gordo features a Gibson-style 3-way pickup selector and independent volume and tone controls for each pickup. That adds up to many tone options if you like to play with pickup balance or color songs with extreme tone shifts (which can be especially interesting given the sonic differences between the two pickups). The cloth wiring visible through the soundhole is a nice retro touch. But the knobs would be easier to manipulate if they were just a bit closer to the player—fast volume adjustment can feel like a serious reach.

Gordo Means Fat The bridge humbucker and Telecaster-style neck single-coil (angled, unusually, toward the bridge’s bass side) provide everything from percussive rock crunch to fluty blues leads. The articulate humbucker has just a tad more power than your typical PAF, but it’s never muddy, honky, or flat-sounding. Likewise, the neck pickup seems hotter than your average T-Style pickup, but the result is excellent balance between the two pickups.

El Gordo’s semi-hollow, center-block construction lends thwacking immediacy and chunky mass to chords, but also gives clean tones resonance and a pretty, sparkling airiness. With a loud, dirty amp, El Gordo’s easily generates controllable feedback, especially if you ride the volume and tone knobs.

While El Gordo can be jangly and clean, it specializes in burly rock ’n’ roll sounds. Josh Homme fans will love the humbucker’s thick stoner heaviness at low tone settings. It’s also great at mimicking the powerful kerrang of Malcolm Young’s Gretsch, or sustained, fuzzy lead textures.

The Verdict El Gordo is a playable, and yes, fat-sounding way to skirt the status quo. It looks vintage in a unique way without seeming silly. Best of all, it’s a genuine player’s instrument. The interestingly matched pickups, effective tone and volume controls, and stable Bigsby vibrato conspire to make this a very expressive instrument. Quirky has rarely felt this rock-solid, or been capable of so many tasty sounds.

Vox AC10 Custom

J20371000000000-00-500x500 The new AC10 Custom is a very different amp than the first Vox to bear that name. That AC10 was one of Vox’s very first amps—a more affordable, stripped down little brother to the AC15 that was then revolutionizing the English amplifier landscape.

In many respects, this new two-EL84 AC10 has more in common with the contemporary AC15. In both sonic and visual terms it may be one of the most cost-effective means to get the most familiar ’60s Vox vibe that’s come down the chute in a while.

Have We Met Before? I get excited when I see a little Vox tube amp as a studio option. I don’t own one, but when I see an AC4 or AC15 around, I start to think about possible contributions in terms of spirit, brightness, and colorful immediacy. The AC10 lends that same outward reassurance. From the black textured vinyl to the piping and diamond grill cloth, it’s classically Vox and very well put together. At less than 21 inches wide and about 16 inches tall, it’s compact, and at just over 12 pounds it’s easy to tote around. The chassis and speaker are obscured from view by a closed-back cab. That’s never fun for inspection of the amp’s inner works, but it almost certainly adds a little extra bass thump to an amp that, as we’ll see, punches outside its weight class with ease.

The control set is streamlined: a bass/treble EQ section, a reverb control, and gain and volume controls at opposite ends of the five-knob array. Unfortunately, the reverb is a digital unit rather than the spring reverb you see on the AC15 or AC30 Customs. It’s not a bad reverb, and is often key to getting the most classically Vox-y and sparkling tones. But it’s hard not to wonder if a more streamlined circuit would have sounded just a touch better and been less expensive.

If it’s crunchy tones you need, it’s best to keep the gain and volume up and use your guitar volume rather than stompoxes to achieve gain stages and color shifts.

A Jangly Little Thug Like a lot of great small amps, the AC10 evokes the youthful, exuberant rush of plugging straight in and turning up—way up—for the first time. It’s happiest when it’s loud, and the closed-back cabinet adds just the right amount of low-end weight—a soft but sturdy and substantial underpinning for the familiar Vox top-end presence.

The Vox gets bright fast—especially if you have single coils out front. But crank the amp up into natural saturation and you’re glad all that top-end is there. Most players won’t use all of it. But for the right player—the kind that savors lacerating, feral, young Jeff Beck/Yardbirds tones—the extra top end will be a straight shot of electric adrenaline.

Though the AC10 Custom’s virtues as a lead machine are copious, it’s also one of the best rhythm guitar amps I’ve played in ages. The abundant top end and tighter, faster compression that distinguishes Brit amps from their Fender counterparts means that snappy, syncopated Keith Richards and Memphis-style rhythms ring richly with harmonics, exhibit great articulation, and respond deliciously to picking and muting dynamics as you slash across chords. If you were going to make a power pop record in the Flaming Groovies or Big Star vein, or cut a crustier Them-style garage cut, it’s hard to imagine a more effective little partner.


Pros: Beautiful, bright, and airy Vox tones. Dynamic and varied. Light and compact, but super classy looking.

Cons: Digital reverb is thin. Can be unfriendly to fuzz.

Street: $449

Vox AC10 Custom

Like many small amps on the more excitable side of the tone and dynamics spectrum, the AC10 isn’t the best partner for gain pedals. While the rich, ringing overtones that oxygenate the amp’s output are perfect for modulation effects (tremolo is an especially good match), fuzzes and even mid-gain overdrive pedals tend to muddy the output. Less complicated fuzzes like germanium Fuzz Faces and Tonebenders that still sound cutting and acidic without heavy gain are the best match. And even a low-volume Big Muff can add impressive thrust to the AC10’s tone spectrum in rhythm settings. But if it’s crunchy tones you need, it’s best to keep the gain and volume up and use your guitar volume rather than stompoxes to achieve gain stages and color shifts.

Onboard digital reverb is the lone effect on the AC10. In small amounts, the reverb animates high and high-mid harmonics and fundamental notes in a way that enlivens arpeggios and single note leads. Choppy chord stops, however, more readily highlight its shortcomings—which are less a problem of digital artifacts and artificiality than a kind of thinness. Resourceful players who use subtle reverb will be able to make it work, even under the microscope of the studio. For those that use more reverb, a more tweakable, stompbox reverb might be a better match for the Vox’s bright, complex tone spectrum.

The Verdict The AC10 might not have quite enough muscle to be a rock ‘n’ roll club amp (though I think it would hang tough and then some in a joint with really good front-of-stage monitors). In the studio, however, the AC10 Custom can be absolute magic. It rings in a uniquely excitable, British kind of way that classic, ubiquitous small amps like Champs, Princetons, and Blues and Pro Juniors can’t quite match. The AC10 may not be a betteramp than any of those. But I can’t remember having more fun with a Rickenbacker, a Telecaster, and a cable than I had in a few days with the little Vox.

The AC10 could be the ultimate amplifier for laying down power pop rhythm tracks. And it’s devastating as a lead machine with volume and gain controls up high. The best part of all this is it will only set you back about 450 bucks. If you think about how many pedals you’ve bought that add up to the same money and that will never sound quite as cool as the AC10 blasting away all on its own, this little Vox fast becomes a contender for the bang-for-the-buck amp championship.

Demeter Bass 400 Amp

Electronics guru James Demeter has spent more than three decades producing amps and pedals that exemplify his no-frills approach to handcrafted analog gear. Based on his 800-watt VTBP-M-800D bass amp, the new Bass 400 is a petite 400-watt powerhouse that pairs Demeter’s early ’80s VTBP-201 tube preamp with a class-D power amplifier. The idea was to provide a smaller and more affordable alternative to Demeter’s flagship bass amp, with minimal tonal sacrifices. Half-Power Howler The Bass 400 comes in two aesthetic flavor options—a caged enclosure (which we received for our test unit) or a tolex-wrapped head. An exceptional handwiring job was revealed when I pulled the amp’s bottom panel off. The preamp’s circuit board looks decidedly old-school next to the modern and precise class-D power-amp board. The preamp’s board is populated with low-noise metal-film resistors and a ceramic socket for the 12AX7 tube. There’s also a little trimmer pot for matching the amp’s output volume with the sensitivity of your bass’ pickups.

The front panel sports a 3-band EQ and controls for volume and presence, along with separate inputs for active and passive basses. A switch below the bass dial sets its range to within either 60 Hz or 120 Hz, and the switch beneath the treble knob selects dark, normal, or bright mode for the highs.

Demeter Amplification Bass 400 Ratings

Pros: Jaw-dropping fidelity across the board. Smooth, versatile tones with loads of headroom. Robust build.

Cons: Fast attack might frustrate those looking for less-intense tones. Pricey.


Street: $999

Demeter Amplification BSC-310 Ratings

Pros: Delivers balanced tones with superb note separation. Includes handy tweeter attenuator. Handles loud volumes well.

Cons: Bulky and on the heavier side for a 3x10 cab.


The back of the amp features separate power amp in and preamp out jacks alongside dual Speakon 1/4" combo speaker jacks, which deliver either 250 watts into 8 ohms or 400 watts into 4 ohms. The rear panel also houses a balanced XLR output with a pre/post EQ switch that can be upgraded with a dedicated Jensen transformer for a couple hundred bucks.

The Bass 400 is voiced for the BSC-310 speaker cabinet that Demeter also supplied for the review. The 50-pound cab is loaded with a trio of custom Eminence 10" drivers and a center-mounted tweeter, and can handle up to 450 watts. The tweeter has an adjustable volume control that’s located on the cab’s rear jack panel. The BSC-310 is constructed from marine-grade birch plywood and is a stalwart little cab, albeit a bit bulky to lug around and a little on the hefty side for its configuration.

Big ’n’ Tasty With the Bass 400’s EQ set flat and a trusty Fender Jazz plugged into the passive input, the amp unleashed a warm and lush midrange with thumpy lows and a quick attack. It was also surprisingly transparent. (I’m talking about a level that’s normally found with amps that use much larger output transformers.) The class-D power amp delivered big headroom and the amp had a seemingly magical ability to translate every nuance of my fingerpicking. The fast note delivery and squeaky edginess of the high end helped make a great foundation for old-school prog-rock riffing à la John Wetton-era King Crimson, especially when I turned up the middle dial to around 2 o’clock for some additional midrange grind.

I’ve personally never been a huge fan of preset high-end roll-off modes. I often find them limiting, which is why I typically opt for an external parametric EQ. That said, I was really pleased with how well the amp’s bright and dark modes either accentuated or curbed the overtones. The dark mode pulled just enough of the edge off without sacrificing the midrange’s punchiness and articulation, and its additional low-end spread gave soulful R&B work the extra thump it typically calls for. I had a blast using this mode to throw down my favorite James Alexander licks, though I really would have liked a preamp-gain control to try to coax a gooier tone by slowing down the amp’s breakneck attack.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the springy sounding bright mode is a slapper’s dream. The highs were especially vibrant and clear, and even light hammer-ons and trills helped the notes leap off the fretboard with ease. When I relied solely on using my onboard volume and tone knobs for tonal changes, I found the bright mode to be tremendously versatile for rock, funk, metal, and blues. It was easily my favorite mode of the three.

After some time with the rig, I began to wonder how much of a factor the BSC-310 cabinet played in my tonal brew. That was quickly answered when I paired the Bass 400 with an Ampeg SVT 4x10 to A/B, and quickly determined that the BSC-310 delivered more projection and fullness. Yes, the Ampeg cab still sounded great and delivered a solid tone at both high and low volumes, but it didn’t match the Demeter cab’s midrange articulation and low-end depth.

The Verdict Demeter was smart to exploit the strengths of their tube preamp and pair it with a class-D power amp for the Bass 400. The efficiency of the power amp lends a lot of fidelity to the velvety smooth-sounding preamp, which yields a palette of tones that aren’t quite those found within a full-blown tube amp, but are undeniably more natural and responsive than what you’ll get from a solid-state head. The Bass 400 might not have some of the qualities of a pushed tube amp, such as a molasses-slow attack, but when tube traits are stacked up against the Bass 400’s strengths—which there are a lot of—it’s a very minor quibble. This rig delivers.

Catalinbread Katzenkonig


It’s no secret that most modern fuzz and distortion pedals are based on designs from the 1960s and ’70s. But revisiting old circuits doesn’t rule out creativity. Consider Catalinbread’s Katzenkönig, which weds a great ’60s circuit to an equally classic ’70s one while adding meaningful refinements—spawning a talented new offspring that often outshines its parents.

Art School Confidential I seldom dwell on stompbox cosmetics, but damn, this pedal looks cool. The image of the Katzenkönig (“Cat King” in German) presiding over his latest kill evokes early 20th-century Vienna Secession graphics. It’s gorgeous.

The circuit resides in a standard B-sized enclosure. You can power the pedal by battery or with any power supply voltage between 9V and 18V. The internal construction, with its modern, hand-populated circuit board, seems solid and damage-resistant.

Bender Basics To understand what Katzenkönig does and why it’s special, it helps to understand the circuits that inspired it. (Skip ahead if you know this stuff.)

The front half of the circuit is based on the Tone Bender MKII, widely considered the most desirable of the Tone Benders. (Not by me, for what it’s worth—the MKII is my least favorite of the four incarnations.) In the original, a germanium transistor makes the signal loud. A second transistor makes it very loud. A third one makes it ridiculously loud.

The filter control works wonders, enabling shades you’d never obtain from a Tone Bender MKII.

It’s one of the hottest fuzzes ever, with a heavily distorted signal plus enough level to bludgeon almost any preamp tube into overdriven submission. Lowering the two knobs on an original MKII (gain and volume) tends to neuter the impact, and there are no tone controls.

Bending the Rat Katzenkönig employs silicon transistors, which can mean an even louder, nastier Bender. Not here though—after the third transistor, the signal encounters the second half of a Rat circuit. On that pedal, an op amp generates gain, after which the signal encounters a pair of clipping diodes and a clever single-knob tone circuit.

On Katzenkönig, the diodes focus the blaring, splattery MKII sound. Lows get tighter and heavier. The filter control works wonders, enabling shades you’d never obtain from a MKII. Bright settings sizzle, but not excessively so, while dark tones maintain impact.

Another useful addition is an input trim control. On a Bender, it’s generally more effective to reduce gain by turning down your guitar volume than by adjusting the pedal’s gain knob. Here, the input pot does the job. (You can still use your guitar’s volume knob, but this arrangement is great for players who prefer to keep their guitar volume maxed out.) The control is perfectly scaled to compensate for output variations between pickups types.


Pros: Unique distortion/fuzz hybrid. Ferocious yet focused distortion. Highly versatile.

Cons: Noisy.


Got Gain? Even cooler is the reimagined gain control. Vintage Benders crap out when you lower the gain, but Katzenkönig’s gain control provides killer tones throughout its range. (Geek detail: Instead of altering the voltage from a transistor to ground, it tweaks the resistance of a negative feedback loop between two transistors. I can report this with confidence because the pedal’s extraordinarily useful and detailed user’s manual includes a circuit schematic.)

I listened to Katzenkönig alongside accurate homemade MKII and Rat clones. Compared to a MKII, Katzenkönig is tighter, heavier, and more modern-sounding. You don’t quite get the low-end tightness of a Rat, and, for better or worse, there’s less of an ’80s metal feel. Meanwhile, the added and redesigned controls make the pedal vastly more versatile than either of its inspirations. But as on both MKIIs and Rats, high-gain settings can be noisy—you may need to ride your guitar’s volume knob or apply a noise gate to keep the buzzing in check.

Paired with a pre-CBS Strat, Katzenkönig fattened tones and smoothed highs—imagine a tighter-sounding Fuzz Face with a snappier attack. When I switched to a Gibson Trini Lopez with humbuckers, the sound was heavy but tight, with nicely balanced lows. Both pickup types delivered a focused fatness that lent complex harmonies and low-register harmonic intervals a clarity you’d never obtain from a MKII.

Someone clearly took the time to refine the ranges and tapers of all knobs. Katzenkönig provides genuinely useful sounds at nearly every setting—something you certainly can’t say about Benders or Rats.

The Verdict This spawn of a Tone Bender MKII and an early Rat doesn’t sound like either of its forebears. Instead, it splits the difference between the two. You get fiery fuzz with uncommon tightness—or, to put it another way, tough distortion with a strong dose of explosive fuzz. The pedal’s new and redesigned controls greatly extend its range, making it suitable for metal, punk, indie, or any style that benefits from aggressive yet disciplined guitar tones. Katzenkönig is well made. It looks great. The price is more than fair. It has tones of its own. This one’s a winner—all hail the Cat King!

Fulltone 2B JFET Booster


I love clean boost pedals. They’re streamlined, simple, and good ones can add body and harmonic complexity to my inexpensive little solid-state Vox just as easily as they can nudge my Bassman into a heavy and sparkling tone paradise. Fulltone’s new 2B is a great clean boost—in fact it’s one of the finest I’ve ever used.

The compact, sturdy, and elegant 2B is essentially the clean boost section of the excellent Fulltone Full-Drive 3. It also works as a buffer whether it’s on or off—making it a superb post-fuzz/pre-delay buffer/boost on a busy board. The boost itself is beautiful—up to 20dB of JFET-driven, refined, high-headroom muscle that’s airy, detailed, and smooth. (The not-too-trebly tones also suggest that Mike Fuller’s expertise with Maestro EP-3 Echoplexes and their superb preamps paid off here.) But it’s the “dynamic” control that provides the extra spoonful of magic. This little knob controls a germanium diode limiter that softens transient spikes. At its lowest settings you hear the 2B in all its wide-spectrum harmonic splendor. Turn clockwise and you’ll hear a progressively more controlled and contained, but still exceptionally dynamic boost signal. What a killer little pedal!

Big Tone Music Brewery Brit Overdrive Review

EQDBritTop If you don’t yet know the Big Tone Music Brewery name, you probably know the people behind the company. It’s a sister of Build Your Own Clone (B.Y.O.C.), the little-stompbox-kit-company-that-could whose pedals often top best-alternative lists for everything from Big Muffs to Boss Vibratos.

Given that history, it goes without saying that Big Tone Brewery is way more into substance and circuits than style. And their fixation with what makes a stompbox tick, buzz, rip, or roar led to the creation of the EQ’d Vintage Series pedals—a line of fuzzes, overdrives, and distortions that add parametric EQ functionality to classic dirt circuits. Though the line includes everything from Ram’s Head and Triangle Muffs, Fuzz Face clones, and DOD Overdrives, we checked out the British Overdrive, which effectively unites the relatively unsung Marshall Bluesbreaker and Guv’nor pedal circuits in a single, very impressive overdrive/distortion hybrid.

Brit Blues Built Just For You B.Y.O.C.’s deep, diverse, and probing knowledge about what makes a good circuit work is easy to see in the layout of the British Overdrive circuit. With two switchable clipping sections and the parametric EQ, it’s not exactly simple.

What’s beautiful, though, is the ease with which I could get a relatively similar sound out of each amp with the pedal’s EQ. But the through-hole wired board could not look tidier or more ordered. The EQ section has it’s own dedicated board, which is situated neatly at a right angle to the board that’s home to the drive section. Even with all that going on there is ample room for a 9V battery and a 9V DC jack.

The exterior of the enclosure is all biz and very little flash—the better to illustrate the functions of the smart, compact control set. The two lower knobs are for level and gain, while the toggle above switches between “vintage” (Bluesbreaker-style silicon clipping diodes) and “crunch” (Guv’nor style LED clipping diodes). What look like two knobs just above the switch is actually two concentric knob sets that make four. The left knobs control bass and treble. The right knobs are for midrange and isolate and fine-tune specific midrange frequencies. The footswitch is a pop-free soft-touch relay. It’s especially nice (and quiet) when you’re using the British Overdrive in high gain situations.

British, Brutish, and a Bit Urbane I came to know and love the textures of the Guv’nor via my very early Danelectro Daddy-O (which I often used to extract mid-‘60s Beatles-tones from my Fender piggybacks). That pedal hasn’t worked for years, so I was thrilled to plug in the British Overdrive and explore the LED diode-driven crunch mode. Though it took some time to get re-acquainted—especially with the enhanced EQ section (more about that in a minute)—it was thrilling to hear how the snappy, mid-rangey, bright, and ever-so-slightly-sizzling gain seamlessly nestled with the more contoured, tube-rectified, and slightly squishy output from my blackface Tremolux. Choppy chords managed to sound tough, brash, and harmonically sophisticated. Single note leads, meanwhile, bristled with a hot, organic, and sometimes explosive energy.

It should be noted that I didn’t arrive at this bliss immediately. Getting exactly the Vox-meets-Fender fusion I wanted to hear took some careful and attentive tweaking of the EQ. But while the EQ may be less than totally intuitive, what’s awesome is the way it can feel as powerful as a good piece of outboard gear. Those mid-’60s Beatles sounds I was seeking? They were created as much by Geoff Emerick’s tweaking of Abbey Road’s primitive but powerful compressors and preamps as they were by the sounds of Casinos, Bassmans, and Vox 7120s. The EQ on the British Overdrive gives you some of the very same power on the other side of the amp.

For my already bright Tremolux, I rolled back the bass just a touch to give the mids breathing room, added a little extra top end and a smidge of mids, then fine-tuned the midrange frequencies favoring the airier high-mid zones. A Vox AC10 required a pretty different EQ profile (with a lot less need for the spiky top end output from the pedal). A silverface Bassman with a fairly bassy 2x12 cabinet liked a little more nuanced high-mid setting and just a touch less bass. What’s beautiful, though, is the ease with which I could get a relatively similar sound out of each amp with the pedal’s EQ. It’s a truly powerful set of controls that can be tricky at first, but can deliver big sonic payoffs.

The vintage mode makes the British Overdrive a very different animal, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many players prefer this setting. The silicon clipping section makes the vintage mode not only quieter, but also just a bit more transparent. At fairly neutral EQ settings it was a great fit for the AC10, which has a strong, intrinsically mid-range personality that benefits from a subtle nudge in lead situations. A Fender Champ was another great match for the vintage mode, though it loved a little less bass and a hotter, airier midrange for leads. Vintage mode will also appeal to big Brit amp users who need just a subtle boost and the illusion of a little extra gain created by a high-mid bump.

The Verdict Bottom line: There isn’t much the British Overdrive doesn’t do well. It isn’t the most transparent overdrive, but it can be very subtle in spite of the color it lends. The EQ is often spectacularly effective—transforming the pedal from subdued to wildly aggressive to downright weird—particularly in the harder-clipping crunch mode. And while the EQ section isn’t altogether intuitive at first, a little practice makes it simple enough to use in variable backline situations, studio applications, or performance situations where you switch between guitars. For players that aren’t shy about tinkering, the British Overdrive is a bounty of cool and practical dirt tones.