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With the amp industry focusing a lot more attention on small-wattage tube amps these days, it’s rarer to see a new high-wattage tube amps on the scene. The benefits of small-wattage tube amps in the studio are many—from ease of recording to their portability. But they aren’t capable of producing the extreme amounts of headroom and heft that you get with a really powerful amp. Seattle’s Ben Verellen recognizes this, and his amps have been a huge hit with the high-power, underground crowd of rockers, from Andrew Seward of Against Me! and Mike Sullivan and Brian Cook from Russian Circles to Dave Knudson and Cory Murchy of Minus the Bear and Bryan Richie of The Sword.
Verellen was inspired by the underground rock and metal scene of the early ’90s, when players with less-than-stellar gear put a lot of creativity into Frankensteined, six-stack rigs. The resulting sounds were something that really hadn’t been achieved before—brash and extremely loud. And in the spirit of all things heavy and loud, Verellen’s 300-watt behemoth—dubbed the Meat Smoke—is a monster offering to the rock gods, with a vintage tinge in its voicing, an extremely clean power-section, and a design that enables use with both guitar and bass.
All That Is Heavy
The design behind the Meat Smoke could be considered rather unconventional in today's market. In the ’70s amps were built around the notion that a massive amount of volume was needed to fill vast auditoriums and overcome inferior PAs. Famously powerful amps like the Ampeg SVT and Marshall Major were the end result of these needs. Yet many guitarists have found that the considerable amount of headroom available with these amps produces its own array of tones that just aren't possible with lower-wattage amps—and the Meat Smoke is a prime example of an amp that can kick out exemplary clear tone at very high volume.
The Meat Smoke's innards are completely tube driven, beginning with a trio of 12AX7 preamp tubes. The signal is then fed into the power section—fueled by a sextet of 6550 power tubes—that generates a whopping 300 watts. A power transformer, filament supply transformer, choke, and an absolutely massive output transformer are expertly coupled to the amp's 14 gauge, cold-rolled-steel chassis. Apart from the considerable amount of weight they add to the amp's already hefty poundage, they're physically huge—seriously, the output transformer is almost as big as my head, which suggests that the transformer has a wider-frequency response bigger, tighter low end, and a snappy top-end attack. Verellen also designed the output transformer that way because he wanted the circuitry to have more effect on the tone, with minimal influence from the transformer itself.
Feature-wise, the Meat Smoke is pretty straightforward. It's a two-channel amp with a shared 3-band EQ, along with separate Master Volume and Gain controls for each channel. Located to the left and right of the Bass, Midrange, and Treble knobs are two switches for shifting the bass and treble frequencies. The controls were designed with simplicity in mind, but also with the consideration that the amp is voiced for both guitar and bass—making it easier to dial in good tones for both. The entire package is housed in a really striking head-enclosure, constructed from Baltic birch that’s finished with a deep, greyish-brown stain.
The Meat Smoke is all about power—pure and simple. Even so, the tone is multidimensional and at times it was hard to tell that I was playing through just one amp. Generally, the amp's tone is similar to a cross between the clean, glass-like tones of a ’70s Ampeg SVT, with the juicy, thick gain of an early to mid-’70s Orange. With that said, the combination of Verellen's voicing and the heft that the oversized transformer provides sets the Meat Smoke well apart from its influences.
Grabbing a 2011 Fender American Telecaster, I plugged the Meat Smoke into an Emperor 4x12, loaded with Weber C1265 speakers. The tone was monstrous in the bass, coupled with a clear and robust high-end that breathed easily within the amp’s copious amount of headroom. Starting with the clean channel and both tone-shift switches set to add their respective frequency ranges, arpeggios rang out with commanding authority. The voicing has traces of darkness and is extremely throaty in the midrange. But the Meat Smoke has a very immediate quality to its attack, and most of the amp’s sag resides in the low end and low-midrange area, which allows the high end to have an aggressive tonality and texture. Most of the time, I had to dial back the bass to 10 or 11 o'clock—to keep the overall tone controlled and taunt throughout—because the bass is huge.
With a USA Kramer Striker bass and an Ampeg SVT 8x10 cabinet, I dug into the strings with a Geezer Butler-inspired set of riffs that brimmed with big lows, crushing mids, and rounded, powerful highs. The tone got meaner as I turned up the clean channel’s preamp control to add a little grit, and the amp’s great touch-sensitivity allowed me to coat my tone with a layer of overdrive, simply by hitting the strings with more force.
While the Meat Smoke’s cleans harken back to some of the best examples of high-wattage, clean tones from the golden years of the ’70s, the real star of the show is the amp’s overdrive channel. Wielding a 1978 Gibson Les Paul Custom loaded with Tom Anderson pickups, the amp’s overdrive channel had more than enough gain with the preamp drive at the 1 o’clock position—and wow, what an overdrive. The midrange has traces of a vintage voice with plenty of thickness, grind, and bite and thoughts of vintage Matamp and Orange amplifiers from the early ’70s filled my head.
The Meat Smoke’s midrange perfectly encapsulated the great, bouncy nature that made those amps famous in the first place, but with even more volume and heft. The leftmost tone-shift switch came into play nicely by sloping the low end with the switch in the down position. As I turned up the preamp’s Gain control, the amp became more fuzz-like, which was absolutely perfect for modern stoner-rock, slow doom-metal, and sludge-drenched riffs. I’ve had the privilege of playing some of the best gear available for those genres, but the Meat Smoke ranks among the best. Thrash-metal and rock guitarists will probably grow frustrated with the amp’s seemingly relentless need to loosen and expand sharp, focused playing, but for slow, dirty rockers, the Meat Smoke’s overdrive channel is one of the best tools they’ll find on the market today.
Many guitarists will scoff at the mention of a 300-watt tube amp. But to judge soon means missing out on an entirely unique world of guitar tone that’s ignored by a lot of guitarists. Experiencing overdriven tube-tone with massive headroom for it to breathe is something that all guitarists should experience at least once in their lives. Its as exhilarating as cranking a vintage 100-watt Marshall Plexi, or drenching your Strat’s tone in a sea of vintage Fender reverb. The Meat Smoke is not the most versatile amp in the world, and it’s not something that you’re going to want to haul down to the coffee shop or small-club gig to play with. It’s meant to be played in front of people that appreciate having their ribcages rattle to a wall of fuzzed-out overdrive. For stoner rock, doom, post rock, and sludge players, the Meat Smoke is not only a great amp—for those styles, it might just be the best amp on the market today.
you want only the finest in high-power, ridiculously brutal, metal tone with a vintage, Orange-esque vibe.
volume levels are—quite understandably—a top issue.