Clip #2 — Clean tone mic'd with Royer R121
Clip #3 — With fuzz and mic'd with Royer R121
Plenty of power. Excellent reverb and tremolo sounds. Smart, useful complement of outputs.
Not for players who like tube breakup. Difficult to adjust internal DIP switches.
Milkman Sound The Amp
Ease of Use:
Milkman Sound's Tim Marcus created The Amp partly out of selfishness. As a pedal-steel player, Marcus wanted a compact amp that had plenty of headroom, reverb and tremolo, and could also work as a high-fidelity DI. Instead of creating an entirely new circuit from the ground up, he looked to one of his own hybrid tube/solid-state designs, the 300-watt Pedal Steel Half and Half, and adapted the concept to a pedalboard amp. The result is a little amp that sounds big, travels easy, is clean enough for pedal steel, and satisfies guitarists who like Fender-style sounds and lots of headroom.
The Amp is a hybrid design with a tube preamp and a solid-state power section design. It features a 12AX7 preamp tube running at a high voltage that generates just a little bit of grit when you crank the volume. (If your base tone relies on natural tube breakup, this might not be the amp for you). The other side of the circuit is a class-D, solid-state power amp that offers between 25 and 100 watts of power, depending on the impedance of your cabinet. (In general The Amp will run at 50 watts into an 8-ohm cabinet or at 100 watts at 4 ohms.) The amp also works on variable voltage, so you can gig internationally without having to worry about voltage converters or blowing up your rig.
If you’re accustomed to all-tube circuits, the hybrid design can feel satisfying and a bit unfamiliar. Pick attack feels quick and immediate (a hallmark of most solid-state amps), but the full, round presence and warmth and dynamics clearly feel like a product of the 12AX7-driven preamp. There’s definitely a hint of compression there, but not as much as you’d expect to feel from an all-tube setup. In general, The Amp’s volume knob brings in the warmth, while the master control is like a fader on a hi-fi stereo system—it just makes things louder without coloring your tone. Imagine the pristine clarity in Jerry Garcia’s early-’70s tone when he was using a Fender Twin and a McIntosh power amp and you’ll start to get the idea of the clean sounds The Amp can deliver.
Three Views of a Circuit
There are several ways you can put The Amp to work. It can function as a standard head plugged into a passive cab, as a tube preamp somewhere in your pedal chain, as a DI amp that can feed a DAW, or even as a practice amp through your headphones. It's clear Marcus spent serious time thinking how real-world musicians could get as much use out of this amp as possible.
On a recent gig I brought a 1x12 Avatar cab along with The Amp to see how it worked with my own rig. Personally, I prefer to run an amp with lots of headroom and use pedals to taste—a situation that The Amp is ideal for. In practice, The Amp was powerful and robust and took readily to most effects on my board.
And though I doubt David Gilmour will be making the switch to solid-state power amps any time soon, when I stepped on an Electro-Harmonix Green Russian Big Muff for our end-of-set Pink Floyd jams, the fuzz sounded resonant, deep, and lively. Lower-gain pedals and TS-style stomps played along nicely with the amp’s hybrid circuitry too. And there was little sign of harshness generated by placing an extra gain stage in front of the solid-state power amp.
On this particular gig, I had The Amp’s volume at about 10 o’clock and the master at about 2 o’clock, which was all the volume I needed. Pushing The Amp much further doesn’t deliver much in the way of extra gain. And when you do max both controls, the preamp grit can start to sound just a touch sterile. But again, The Amp is about headroom. And if it’s natural tube saturation you’re looking for, you might want to look elsewhere.
Springs and Other Things
The Robert Keeley-designed reverb circuit and VCA tremolo are superb. (If you remove the right panel you will see a trim pot that adjusts reverb decay and a series of DIP switches that alter reverb type and the LFO of the tremolo). Marcus chose to ship The Amp with a digital spring reverb and an analog triangle LFO tremolo. But the DIP switches offer options for two additional spring-reverb variations and a plate option. I’m not a purist when it comes to analog reverb, and frankly, I prefer digital reverb in most band situations. Here the digital reverb is functional and classic sounding. The tremolo, meanwhile, is wide and syrupy with a big enough range on the depth and rate controls to go from a soft warble to stuttering chops.
In a home studio, an amp that you can run directly into a digital interface can be a godsend—especially if you want to avoid the less personal and more generic tones found in digital amp emulators. The Amp features a balanced XLR out with a cab simulator for such situations. Basically, the cab-simulator switch on the back activates a more pleasing EQ curve that lends itself to tracking. As you can hear on the accompanying audio, the DI tones are impressively earthy and natural. Marcus wanted this to be a top-notch studio tool, and we’re inclined to declare, “mission accomplished” on that front.
The Amp seems to live at the intersection of sweet sounds, convenience, and reliability. The hybrid design is thoughtfully and well executed. But the tube preamp does more than just satisfy the worries of players that need a hot piece of glass somewhere in their signal chain. It lends real warmth in terms of both sound and feel. And though The Amp, which is small enough to be tossed in a suitcase with your tour threads, is wonderfully practical, it’s also marvelously musical, affordable, and loads of fun.
Watch the First Look: