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VanAmps Sole-Mate Jr. Pedal Review

February 4, 2013

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.

Split Infinitives
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.

Ratings

Pros:
An easy way to add real, high-quality spring reverb to your amp. Fantastic tones, especially for clean sounds.

Cons:
High price tag. Still requires a lot of space for a basic effect. Spring unit could be better protected.

Tones:

Ease of Use:

Build/Design:

Value:

Street:
$250

Van Amps
vanamps.com

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 Verdict
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.