My three go-to amps are a ’70s Simms-Watts, a Matchless HC-30, and an
Orange Tiny Terror, depending on my needs
(and the quality of available hearing protection
on hand, particularly where the Simms-Watts is concerned). These amps have very
little in common sonically, but they do
share a common fault: None of them have
reverb. This was a common problem in the
past, and the solution was either getting one
of those giant, amp-head-sized tank units,
or investing in an entirely different amp.
Typically compact and rugged, digital reverb
was a good fix when it came around. But
until companies like Electro-Harmonix and
Malekko dedicated themselves to making
good spring replicators and DSP modeling
evolved to its present, refined state, digital
reverb tended to sound pretty cold.
In 2006, Van Amps released the Sole-Mate spring reverb pedal, which offered a
true solution by packing a real reverb tank
and solid-state circuitry into a relatively compact
stompbox. The new Sole-Mate Jr., however,
reduces the footprint even further by
removing the tank from the switching unit.
Where did the tank go? It’s now connected
to the switching unit via an RCA cable, so it
can go anywhere you’d like (within a reasonable
distance). It can be mounted under your
pedalboard, or just sit on the floor next to it.
And the design opens up a lot of possibilities
for fans of spring reverb that have—because
of practicality and space constraints—had to
settle for lackluster substitutes.
Before I played a single note through the
Sole-Mate Jr., I examined the logistics
of various tank-mounting options. The
underside of the pedalboard is a pretty good
place for it. It’s a short cable run, and the
underside is usually dedicated to power supplies
anyway. With Emma AmARHyll and
Pedaltrain PT-1 units, there was enough
room to mount the tank and place it conveniently
next to the power brick (you’ll
need to be mindful not to ground the
reverb tank to a metal pedalboard, however,
and use rubber spacers to avoid hum). My
concern with underside mounting, though,
is that pedalboards can get banged around
a lot in live situations—loading a board on
and off a stage could leave the underside
vulnerable. Alternatively, mounting the
Sole-Mate Jr. upside down under a pedalboard
could effectively make the tank a collection
cup for dust and stage crud.
Placing the tank on the floor comes with
its own dangers. The vibrations in a live,
loud setting can mean audible problems,
and the “set it on a t-shirt” solution isn’t
very elegant for such a beautifully made
unit. Mounting the unit to the topside at
the backside of the pedalboard is the most
logical solution, but then most of the advantages
over an all-in-one unit like the original
Sole-Mate are negated. Still, while placement
can be a puzzle, the flexibility remains
attractive, and the Sole-Mate Jr. will enable
players to find what works best for them.
The tank itself is an off-the-shelf MOD
8EB2C1B. It’s not rebranded, nor is it hidden
in a protective box. It’s just a stock,
drop-in unit, with the springs exposed on
the underside. What this means to you is
what you’re really buying is the switching/amplifier unit. Nobody makes a better,
sturdier reverb tank than MOD these days,
so does the switching unit match in quality?
Definitely. A peek inside exposes a
beautifully wired circuit board made from
high-quality components. And while the
Sole-Mate Jr. is aimed towards fans of vintage
equipment, the modern op-amp design
keeps things compact.
High Lonesome Sound
No matter how you mount the Sole-Mate
Jr., it sounds fantastic. The box only has
two controls, so dialing in a great tone is
easy. Output level mixes wet and dry, and
the dwell knob adjusts decay. Want longer,
more intense reverb? Or how about something
tighter and less washy? Thankfully,
you don’t really need an owner’s manual to
figure any of that out—it’s simply a matter
of twisting the two knobs to taste. When
switched off, the true-bypass Sole-Mate Jr.
disappears completely from your chain, and
when it’s on, it’s nice and quiet. Even sitting
in a room full of transformers, I didn’t pick
up any interference.
When both controls are wide open,
the reverb is lush and full, with a little
shimmer, a trail that sounds very natural,
and an absence of the “boing-boing” tones
that are the downside of spring reverb to
some ears. Interestingly, the Sole-Mate Jr.
is better suited to spatial, more ambient
reverb than surf tones, which is probably
attributable, in part, to the 3-spring tank.
The surprising absence of really strong
surf-style tones did prompt a thought about
the Sole-Mate Jr.’s potential for customization.
After all, reverb tanks are cheap, and
theoretically, you could easily experiment
with other ones. As long as you’re mindful
of impedance matching, you could easily
adopt a more surf-ready 2-spring tank
or try different tank lengths and spring
counts—effectively making the Sole-Mate
Jr. a customizable reverb system. And while
it’s unlikely this modularity was the primary
motivation behind Van Amps decision to
decouple the tank from the switching and
circuitry, it’s a strength that could create a
lot of options, especially in the studio.
It’s worth noting that by running the
Sole-Mate Jr. before your amp, you’re placing
the reverb before the preamp, just like
the old surf-music players that stacked a
Fender reverb tank on top of their Showman
head. And I really enjoyed the sound of grit
added to the reverb, rather than vice versa.
If your amp has an effects loop, you could
set up a more contemporary and conventional
chain that places the reverb after the
preamp. But the only time I thought the
arrangement sounded less than stellar was
when I hit it with a lot of overdrive or fuzz.
In these setups, a lot of harmonic definition
was lost in a wash of sound.
With clean tones—or with a little drive
to excite it—the reverb sounds better
than almost anything I hear from stock
in-amp reverbs. With a renewed interest
in small vintage amps, like Champs, the
Musicmaster Bass, and Broncos, it’s great to
have a reverb option that matches an amp
in spirit. It really feels like what Fender or
Ampeg probably would have put in their
amplifiers, were they reverb equipped.
The Sole-Mate Jr. can breathe new life into
old or stale-sounding amps, or it can add a
second spring-reverb option to your chain
instead of a digital replication. Despite the
emphasis on downsizing, I’m not so sure the
Sole-Mate Jr. will find favor with users of
large pedalboards, because the features-to-size
ratio is pretty small. But those who prize
high quality, simplicity, and vintage reverb
tones will doubtlessly love what the
Sole-Mate Jr. has to offer.