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|Clips recorded with a 2009 Fender American Stratocaster into a Vox 2x12 extension cab with Celestion Blue Alnico speakers.
While the days of 100-watt stacks are far from fading into obscurity, small, portable studio amplifiers have more traction in the gear market than ever. And the truth is, the surge of low-wattage amps has helped breathe new life and a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation into the industry—especially among small builders. Santa Cruz, California’s Jule Potter is one such builder that’s also keen to be more than a boutique builder. And to that end Jule Amplification has recently released their new Paycheck line of amplifiers—named, designed, and priced with the working musician in mind. The Paycheck family is presently made up of two amps, the 40-watt and the Paycheck 15-watt reviewed here.
Pay It Forward
While affordability was one of the most important guiding philosophies behind the Paycheck line, Jule made sure to retain the qualities players typically associate with high-end boutique amplifiers. With that in mind, the Paycheck 15 is hand-built in Santa Cruz, California with point-to-point wiring and an all-tube design. It also utilizes different components in certain parts of the circuitry to set itself apart from the pack—in this case, Russian 6SL7 octal tubes in the preamp gain stages, rather than the more commonly used 12AX7 tube type. Jule claims that the 6SL7 has more kick and musicality than a standard 12AX7. If you’re worried that replacing a 6SL7 tube would require sleuthing for a vintage, NOS piece, have no fear—the 6SL7 tube is currently being manufactured under the watchful eye of Electro-Harmonix, and is available under both the Sovtek and Tung-Sol reissue brands. The phase inverter and EQ driver positions are driven by a 12AT7 and 12AX7, respectively. And two 6V6 output tubes—coupled with a 5Y3 tube rectifier—handled the output section.
Boutique design values aren’t limited to what’s under the hood. The amp is exceptionally well built. Even though its top grille seemed to make the head larger than it needed to be, the quality of the powder-coated chassis, symmetrical transformer and tube layout and circuit wiring was top notch. It was hard for me to find any cosmetic flaws anywhere, although I found myself wishing for a handle on the top of the amp on several occasions.
The Paycheck 15 was certainly designed with simplicity in mind. A three-band EQ section, coupled with a simple master volume setup, controls the tone-shaping functions. A Presence control is nestled between Master Volume and Treble knobs, and the far right side of the front panel houses a small Overdrive mode switch that engaged an additional Overdrive knob. The rear panel features a simple effects loop with two Level controls, which is a nice design consideration. While there was a wide, smooth sweep without any dead or ineffective positions in each potentiometer, they didn’t all have the same feel when I moved them between their minimum and maximum positions. The equalization knobs felt tight and had a pleasing amount of resistance, but the presence control had a considerably looser feel. It didn’t affect the mechanical workings of the amplifier, but it showed a small sign of lack of build consistency between each component.
Once You’ve Had The Best…
For a 15-watt amp, the Paycheck 15 can really hang with some of its higher-wattage brethren. The amp is capable of very high levels of volume, which I found out running it into Vox AC30 2x12 extension cabinet with Celestion Alnico Blue speakers. Using a 2008 Fender American Telecaster, I was able to achieve some very pleasing clean tones that were full of spank and punch. At times, the Paycheck seemed to perform way beyond its wattage rating—especially given the amp’s very noticeable volume jump with the master volume at around the 10 o’clock position.
A few explorations of that territory suggested that the Paycheck 15 really liked to be cranked, so I kicked in the drive channel and plugged in a 2009 Gibson Les Paul Studio. One of the coolest things about the drive channel design in this amp was how the clean preamp and drive channel preamp controls worked in tandem with one another. Pushing the clean channel preamp control up higher added body and girth, while the drive channel preamp control added a touch of filthy grit at its highest settings. The amp’s high amount of overdrive certainly didn’t hide any of my playing mistakes by drenching them in saturation, however. The tonal response of the Paycheck 15 is honest, accurate, and pretty transparent. It has enough gain to pull off ‘80s-era metal, but without the soft mid voicing that heavier players usually gravitate toward. Instead of focused gallop riffing, it’s really better for high-gain jazz-fusion lead work. The Paycheck 15 had all of the right ingredients for that cocktail, with a very immediate pick attack, tight, full lows, and a round, detailed midrange that sits out front and present.
Jule’s Paycheck 15 is a great amp for studio cats and bar gigs. The amp’s power and response puts makes the Paycheck a surprisingly capable tool for the stage—a category where not too many true small-wattage tube amps can hang. While it can pull of some great high-gain tones, the Paycheck really excels in the range between clean and mid-gain, while great definition lets its inherently strong midrange and low end shine through. The Paycheck 15 is a player’s amp, in the classic sense of the term, and at just under 1200 bucks it gives you a lot of boutique features and quality at a price in line with offerings from some volume manufacturers—a combination that’s rare even in this high era of small-batch, small-builder, small-wattage amps.
you’re after a smooth, punchy-sounding amplifier that excels in both studio and stage environments.
you need a super-clean voice or extremely high gain.