U.K.-based Blackstar Amplification is most famous for big, loud amps. But for all the “heavy” affiliations and associations, Blackstar attracts a broad cross-section of players and builds amps from modest to massive. The new Artist Series, 6L6-driven amps that combine classic Vox and Fender attributes, reside somewhere between the two extremes. The Artist 15 is the smaller of the two Artist Series siblings: a 15-watt, two-channel, many-voiced workhorse that’s plenty punchy for the stage, but simmers down stylishly for home-studio work.
The Artist’s Tools
For a two-channel amplifier, the Artist 15 is a relatively stripped-down affair. The first channel only has a volume and tone control. The second channel offers more controls in the form of a 3-band EQ and Blackstar’s Infinite Shape Feature (ISF). The latter function shifts the basic voice of the amplifier from “British,” with a heftier mid and low-mid response, to “American,” which has a fatter bottom end and enhanced treble. From the extremes of these basic voices (and the points in between) you can use the 3-band EQ to fine tune the output. The master volume controls the output for both channels. The single control for the built-in digital reverb also adds color to both channels.
The rear panel is equipped with a footswitch jack that will allow you to switch between the two channels on the fly. There’s also an effects loop with a level switch that can provide either a +4dBV boost or -10dBV level cut. If you want to use external speakers, the Artist 15 can be set up for 8- or 16-ohm cabinets. There’s also a speaker emulation jack that can be plugged into a mixing console, PA, or recording interface. Just turn down the master volume and you can record silently while using the amplifier’s tubes to warm your tone.
The heart of the Blackstar Artist 15 is two 6L6 power tubes and two ECC83 pre-amp tubes, which push a single 12" Celestion V-Type speaker. Extracting the chassis takes a bit of work, but once the six backplate screws are removed, the horizontally mounted board slips right out. The PC board is shielded from the four tubes and can be completely removed from the cabinet by unplugging the speaker wiring and removing the four larger set screws. Overall, the schematic is very compact, neat, and carefully wired. Weighing in just a little shy of 40 pounds, there’s plenty of meat on the Artist 15’s bones to keep the internal workings safe from shock. It’s a good-looking amp, too, in it’s own minimal way: Faux-leather vinyl shrouds the cabinet, and a silver-and-black weave grille cloth adds a little sparkle to the streamlined look.
Two-Fisted Fury ... and Finesse
Flipping the on switch starts to heat up the tubes, but be careful to have your rig hooked up properly. There’s no standby on the Artist 15. Once the tubes got cookin’, I jacked a Gibson Les Paul straight into the Blackstar and started with channel 1. The gain range on this side of the amp is fairly narrow. You hear a little dirt with the volume control maxed—and that’s with the relatively hot output of the Les Paul’s Seymour Duncan 59s. The extra headroom makes channel 1 a great playground for effects, however. It’s also especially articulate, dynamic, and responsive—offering many tone colors just through variations in playing intensity.
Running the volume at around noon, the Les Paul sings blues with a British accent. And while the ISF doesn’t affect this channel, its basic voice is heavier in the midrange than a traditional Fender-style amp. The tone control is responsive, swinging between dark, jazzy tones and sparkling, treble-tinged output that feels just right and not too bright with humbuckers. The digital reverb sounds nice in small doses, and while it doesn’t have that vintage-inflected plonk of a spring reverb, it exhibits a nice natural swell at modest levels. In the upper regions of the control’s range it can get pretty soupy. For the most part, I kept the reverb at around 9 o’clock, which was just enough to give individual notes a little extra dimension.
The second channel is where the dirt and grit live, though this is far from a high-gain affair. Maxing the gain on channel 2 delivers glorious classic rock stank—bourbon on the bayou, smoke on the water, sweaty, dank, rock ‘n’ blues. The ISF control is a pretty cool feature, and it truly feels and sounds like more than a renamed presence knob. You can really hear the mids creeping into the mix as you nudge the control clockwise. It’s not exactly like having both a Fender and a Marshall or Vox in a single amp, but it opens up a very broad spectrum of voices and expands the functionality of an already powerful EQ section. I really enjoyed keeping the control around noon for best-of-both-worlds flexibility. But there’s not a spot in the sweep that has an unpleasant output. Single-coils definitely benefit from a little treble roll-off, but on the whole it’s a very agreeable amp from guitar to guitar.
The Blackstar Artist 15 can be had for just less than 800 bucks. That’s not exactly cheap for a 15-watt amp. Then again, a lot of boutique amps that deliver these vintage-style tones can cost two to three times as much without delivering the flexibility the Artist 15 puts at your fingertips. It’s a killer amp for raunchy rock with just a cable and guitar, but there’s also enough headroom on channel 1 to accommodate the whims of the pedal obsessed. Both figuratively—and in terms of real volume—this understated Blackstar is one of the most potent 15 watt amplifiers you’ll find.
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