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Blackstar Amplification’s motto, “The sound in your head,” signifies the nature of their mission: to help guitarists achieve the tones they’re striving for. Born in Northampton, England in 2004, Blackstar was the brainchild of four ex-Marshall employees—Ian Robinson, Bruce Keir, Paul Hayhoe and Richard Frost—so it was clear from the start the company would become a major player on the world amp stage. In 2007, the company was formally launched at the Frankfurt Musikmesse, took on two more former Marshall employees, Keith Dudley and Joel Richardson, and entered the market with their HT series pedals—with the intent to graduate to full-on amplification by 2008.
There are three basics to Blackstar’s method, as Hayhoe explains: “First, whether it’s a low-end practice amp or a high-end boutique product, we always want to make sure we’ve got something on there that no one else is offering. Second, it absolutely has to sound the best on the market. [And] the last part is to make sure that it’s affordable, and an extremely good value for the money.”
Following on the successes achieved by the boutique- oriented Artisan series, Blackstar now brings forth the Series One range of amplifiers to the market, and is poised for even more growth with the recent launch of Blackstar USA, Inc., which is designed to supplement existing distribution with independent retailers. The company’s Series One line is an all-tube driven design with more than enough flexibility in tone to make “the sound in your head” a reality.
Blackstar’s design team is on to something with this four-mode, 100-watt, dual-channel head. Featured in the Series One amps are two controls that are unique to the Blackstar brand: the ISF (Infinite Shape Feature) and DPR(Dynamic Power Reduction). The ISF interacts with the tone controls to further shape the voicing characteristics. Not a switch or a notched knob, this is a gliding pot that goes from “US” (fully counterclockwise) to “UK” (fully clockwise)— the general idea being the ability to adjust toward either American- or British-style voicing and response, or anywhere in between. It enables users to go beyond the usual bass, middle and treble. And to add even more to the tonal palette, the Master menu serves up Resonance and Presence controls for the overall bass and treble response of the amp.
The DPR allows you to get cranked-up tone at virtually any physical volume. It can reduce the output down to 10 percent of the amp’s rated power—in this case all the way down to 10 watts—or anywhere in between without sacrificing that tone. Blackstar designed this without placing the power reduction between the output and speaker, so it’s not an attenuator. The DPR’s primary function is to reduce the power output without sacrificing the damping effect or losing the harmonic content of the signal. Also included is a MIDI in/thru interface port and a speaker emulated out for a direct line to a soundboard or recording console.
Each of the two channels, Clean and Overdrive, has two modes, each with its own Gain and Volume controls. The two modes of the Clean channel are Bright and Warm, the target tones being in the realm of boutique-ish Class-A amps and the British workhorse rock tones, respectively. The Overdrive channel has Crunch and Super Crunch modes, which is somewhat self-explanatory. However, there is a difference in the sonic behavior between the two beyond the higher gain of the latter. The four modes are accessible by push-buttons on the amp, as well as the provided footswitch.
The tube complement is four EL34 power tubes (standard for a 100-watt amp), three ECC83 tubes in the preamp section, and one ECC82 that serves to goose the input stage of the signal. According to Blackstar, “The ECC82 is actually used as a buffer to the input of the power amplifier and allows the amp to accommodate a wider spread of power valve grades.” For this review, the amp was accompanied by a Blackstar Series One 412A slant cabinet that houses four 60W Celestion Vintage 30 speakers.
Beginning with the Clean-channel Bright mode, I plugged in a ’57 reissue Strat and went at it. I wanted to see how close I could get to anice, Vox-ey jangle, so I set the Bass midway, Middle around 6 and the Treble around 5. I began with the ISF control in the middle as a central reference point and estimated this tone to be around a 30 to 40 percent DPR. Using a minimal amount of Gain, I got a good, sparkly tone playing some Byrds-style arpeggiated chords. Still searching for that AC30 tone, I brought the Gain up a bit, increased the Bass and moved the ISF clockwise to 2 o’clock. It became very Vox-like. Turning up the Gain a little more and moving the ISF more clockwise caused the amp to sound like a WEM Dominator on steroids. Attempting to put a monkey wrench in the program, I increased the DPR to about 60 percent. The tone was very responsive to pick attack, and it got punchy—I couldn’t help but play some Billy Gibbons licks to get it to break up a little where I needed it.
Selecting the Warm mode with the same guitar and amp settings brought the tone into Jeff Beck-land. Increasing the Gain to 7 or 8, with the Bass wide open and turning up the Treble to 6 got the Series One 100 within the “Plexi” realm. Letting a chord ring out as I turned the Treble knob, I could hear the behavior of the midrange shift quite a bit. Switching to a Les Paul Custom, I set out to get some classic rock tones ranging from Free to Thin Lizzy. Turning the ISF a smidge to the right without changing any of the tone settings proved that control’s worth; the dampening characteristic of the ISF tightened up the bottom end much like the channel-jumped 1959 Super Lead this mode was tailored to parallel. Turning up the DPR to 100 percent, I couldn’t help but play the opening riff to “Jailbreak.” Turning up the Gain almost full bore gave the amp a walloping crunch that’ll make you forget this is still the Clean channel. Decreasing the volume on the guitar still gives you a usable clean tone, but you’ll forget that overdrive and booster pedals exist when you turn your guitar back up.
You can effortlessly get spanky in Bright mode and a focused bottom end in the Warm mode; these characteristics are due to the removal of feedback from the power amp in Bright mode and the inclusion of feedback in Warm mode.
Getting into the Gain
To the right of the Clean channel is where the heat is. Switching into the overdriven Crunch channel, I tried to pick up where I left off with the gained-up Warm mode. Setting up the tone for a simple overdriven tone ideal for a general rock playing style, I set the bass at 9 or 10, Middle at 6 and Treble at 7. Backing the power down to 50 percent, I experimented with this channel’s Gain and Volume in an attempt to get a cranked silverface Twin sound. Putting the ISF on the US side, I was able to achieve a Texas-laced fury with the Gain at 4 and Volume straight up at 5. Increasing the ISF to the British side gradually, without changing the tone settings, the sound became much more percussive, with that back-of-the-cabinet thump becoming more prominent. It almost sounded like two completely different amps, going from that cranked ’70s Twin tone to a Hiwatt with the turn of the ISF dial.
The Overdrive channel’s Super Crunch mode leaves a little to be desired, though. The aim of this mode is to give heavier gain saturation and an even more focused bass, which it has, but there was a slight drop in volume when switching from Crunch to Super Crunch. While in Crunch mode and still wielding my Les Paul, I set out for a good metal tone à la Judas Priest, dropping the Middle control to 5 and cranking the power back up to 100 percent, which turned the S1 into a heavy metal flamethrower. It has a great tone, strong and well defined, and the ISF control gives an almost infinite variety of metal tones, from Van Halen to Metallica. Going from a rhythm riff into solo mode using the footswitch, the gain structure does have quite a bit more dirt, but there is a slight cut in volume. It isn’t a lot, but it’s significant enough to notice. The increase of saturation and midrange dip made the sound less defined. In order to get the needed volume boost to kick the Crunch into Super mode, the channel volume in Super Crunch mode would have to be increased. To give the Super Crunch the definition it needed, a decrease in gain was the cure. But in a performance situation, this is unrealistic, as the two modes share the same Gain and Volume controls.
The Final Mojo
The Blackstar Series One 100 is a serious piece of guitar amp technology with a modern design that can appeal to a wide assortment of guitarists at an affordable price. The idea was to produce an amp that could offer a variety of high-quality tones and maintain them at any volume level. What’s surprising is that the resulting amp is not complicated with umpteen-bazillion switches and rows of knobs and requiring a dozen tubes or more. The most unique features of this amp are the ISF and the DPR. Although the basic tone shaping is much like any other amp of this type, the tonal characteristics can be varied almost infinitely because of the ISF—so don’t expect this amp to have any one definable tone. The DPR is genuinely useful in maintaining the playing dynamics in lower wattages without sacrificing tone. My only concern is the slight volume discrepancy when switching from Crunch to Super Crunch. According to Blackstar, the increase in volume between the Crunch and Super Crunch is a subtle 1.6dB, and is there to offer the player the option of a lead boost. If the role of the Super Crunch mode is to be a boost above the Crunch mode, then perhaps a separate volume is needed.
you want versatility, flexibility and tone that can maintain performance integrity at any volume.
you prefer an amp with one identifiable tone and voice.
Street $1699 (Head); $999 (Cab) - Blackstar Amplification - blackstaramps.co.uk