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Great Amps Do Come in Small Boxes

Hey everyone, how are things? In October, we looked at the concept of “organic modeling” and the misgivings many guitarists have about digital amplifier emulation, in general because of the lack of perceived dynamic response and the absence of a real amp’s touch response. At the end of that column I mentioned that I would share more with you about using quality electronics to discover more great sounds, and about some wonderful-sounding “amps in a box.”

I want to tell a little background story first, okay? Way back in the late ‘80s, during my “Later California Era,” I had the good fortune to meet up with none other than PG’s very own Steve Ouimette. Steve was a technical type of guy even way back then. One night I was trying to record something when Steve invited me over to his house to check out some new gear that he’d just scored; it was the first time I ever saw a Tech 21 SansAmp unit. Tech 21 was then a new company out of NYC that had originally pioneered the concept of “analog amplifier emulation” (built into the familiar stompbox format) and I was about to try it out for size. Did I like it? You can bet I did! In fact, I was absolutely stunned at just how great this unit sounded when it was used direct into a simple fourtrack PortaStudio. To make a long story short, it wasn’t terribly long before I got the recording bug and a SansAmp of my own.

Needless to say, I’ve been a longtime fan of Tech 21’s gear, and I still own just about every box they made. I had an opportunity not long ago to try out their SansAmp Liverpool model amp simulator. This box is supposed to give you the sound of a vintage AC30, and I was able to test it side by side with my friend’s real AC30, and we were floored at how accurate it was. Tech 21’s founder Andrew Barta was able to get those unmistakable chimey tones that made us all love the early British Invasion bands to begin with. Now, if that isn’t enough for you, I have to say right here that the Liverpool model from the Tech 21 SansAmp Character Series even sounds as if it has the period-correct Celestion Alnico Blue speakers built right into it—and you know from past columns how picky I am about speakers. The speakers have to be right from the start or the sound will be all wrong, end of story.

The SansAmp Liverpool model has a variety of clever controls that allow you to dial in any Vox-like tone you’ve ever heard, from The Beatles all the way up to Brian May and beyond. In my humble opinion, this box is a staggering piece of work. I have tried this as a DI, going into a mic preamp’s front input, as well as a stompbox, going through a variety of guitar amps with speakers, and the results were very very nice in all situations. For a street price of around $150, you cannot beat this box.

Every month I try to include some sort of story that relates to the topic of the column. This month I’ll tell you of a very memorable gig that I played as a bassist while using a Tech 21 Bass Driver DI, in this instance as the preamp to my live bass setup. Can you imagine launching into the band’s first tune of the evening only to have your speaker cabinet go down and out within the first 20 seconds? This was exactly what happened to me one night, and it may rank as one of the most challenging situations I’ve had to deal with professionally. I had to keep on playing—with a big smile on my face, no less—without the benefit of directly hearing or feeling myself in time whatsoever. This called for some quick thinking, so I looked back at the drummer, carefully mirroring his bass and snare drum to keep the beat while working furiously to ignore the bass wave from the main PA bouncing back at me off the wall 150 feet in front of us … seriously out of time.

What fun! We played about five songs this way … whew. It was probably the scariest moment I ever had slogging it out on the club circuit. Here’ the rub: my Bass Driver DI wasn’t hooked into the stage monitors, but only to the main PA speakers. By the time the really difficult fast songs of the set had arrived, I had to walk up to the mic and ask the sound man to come up onstage and hook my DI box into the left stage monitor, just so I could hear myself playing. In that case I had to be hooked into yet another console at the side of the stage. That was definitely the longest five songs I’ve ever had to play through. If it hadn’t been for Tech 21’s magic Bass Driver DI box, I would surely have been musical toast! Thanks to Steve Ouimette and Tech 21. See you next month.


Dean Farley
Dean is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today.