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|Clips recorded with a 1978 Gibson Les Paul Custom into a Vox AC30 extension 2x12.|
This philosophy has been the driving force behind Canada’s own Mack Amps. Every Mack amp is built by hand at the company’s Toronto headquarters, with special attention paid to manufacturing efficiency and parts costs in order to deliver great guitar tones on the cheap. Their new, super-lightweight and tiny Gem 2G—an overhaul of the company’s original Gem—you might pay for a mass-manufactured amp of lesser quality.
Like a Rock
The 4-pound Gem 2G is a pretty simple amp to use. There are just three knobs on the front panel of the diminutive 5 1/2" x 8", anodized-aluminum cabinet—Volume, Gain, and Tone—and they felt solid, smooth, and even as I swept through their ranges. The Gem also has three pushbutton switches for Power, Wattage Output, and Preamp Mode. Because the Gem was designed primarily as a studio tool, the Wattage Output switch allows you to move between the amp’s full 4 watts and a micro-powered 0.4-watt mode. And, wisely, Gem put the switch on the front of the amp rather than on back, where designers commonly (and inconveniently) tend to put their power-scaling controls. Each of the switches exhibited the same sturdiness and consistency that’s apparent in the rugged chassis, cabinet, and potentiometers.
The naming convention of the amp’s Preamp Mode control is a little confusing, with two options for Hot and Melt modes. The company bills the Gem 2G as having a tremendous amount of clean headroom, yet the Hot mode is essentially the amp’s clean channel. While it’s able to achieve a slight amount of overdrive with the Gain control cranked, it would have been more appropriate to name the modes Clean and Hot. On the 2G, these two channels are now footswitchable as well, adding another improvement to the original Gem model.
Apart from excellent build quality, what really makes the Gem stand out is its tube complement. While the power section is loaded with a tried-and-true EL84, a single new-old-stock (NOS) 6AC10 triple-triode tube drives the preamp section. Although this tube is something of an oddity in guitar circles, the 6AC10 was one of the most commonly used tubes in early televisions.
Many players will wonder how hard it will be to find replacements for the 6AC10, but it’s actually one of the rare NOS tubes that are isn’t a powerful amp at just 4 watts, but it puts boutique tones in hand for less than pretty easy to find. Because they were a general- purpose tube at a time when most people owned a tube-powered TV (and, no doubt, because there are very few uses for them today), there are literally tons of them out there—and they’re cheap, to boot. I was able to locate some online for only $8 apiece—a considerable bargain given how much good NOS 12AX7s go for nowadays. Mack’s use of an overlooked—but affordable and easy-to-acquire—tube from a bygone era is crafty, thoughtful, and, frankly, a breath of fresh air.
A Gem in the Rough
Mack touts several improvements in the 2G that its predecessor didn’t have—most notably, additional clean headroom and a refined overdrive sound. The clean tones are perceptibly better, too. After plugging the head into a Marshall 2x12 extension cabinet with two Celestion Greenback speakers, I grabbed a 2008 Fender American Telecaster and laid into some hard, Keith Richards-inspired riffs using the amp’s Hot mode.
Even with a very heavy-handed pick attack and the controls at noon, it was almost impossible to distort the amp in any significant way—an unqualified improvement on the original design. In addition, the amp throws a surprising amount of volume and punch. Most players wouldn’t consider 4 watts to be usable anywhere but the studio, but standing in front of the Gem 2G for a few moments might change their opinion. I could have easily played a small gig with this rig, and I’d have no qualms about mic’ing it for use at a mid-sized or large venue.
Though the Hot channel’s sound was punchy and full, the higher frequencies lacked the sparkle you’d find in, say, a Vox AC15. And its clean tones, with their rounded-off high end, fast attack, and even response, sounded better for blues and jazz than rock or country material. It’s still a great amp for a variety of genres, but I couldn’t help thinking it would feel more at home kicking out some smooth Jim Hall progressions than a soaring Led Zeppelin lead.
To find out how far I could push the little tyke in Melt mode, I grabbed a 1978 Les Paul Custom with Tom Anderson humbuckers— including an especially hot H3 in the bridge position. If you savor metal-style gain, the Mack may not be the perfect amp. But you can still generate plenty of crunch by overdriving the power tube with aggressive use of the Volume and Gain controls. It certainly sounded cool in a Marc Bolan-type of way, with a vintage fuzziness reminiscent of early- to mid-’70s guitar tones. Fans of late-’60s and ’70s rock tones are sure to embrace the Mack’s capacity for dry, husky distortion. And if you’re feeling like the Gain control doesn’t have quite enough on tap, you can get a little nastier by boosting the Treble control—which increases high frequencies by up to 6dB.
The beautifully built, accessibly priced, and super-compact Mack Amps Gem 2G marks a fine evolution of great idea. There’s a noticeable bump in clean headroom, and the full-bodied clean tones have an immediate attack and surprising volume. As far as the overdrive tones go, they’re not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. If you’re looking for gain in the range of, say, the Vox Night Train, you’ll probably need to add a distortion pedal to your signal chain. However, this works in the favor of players who are after a smooth, even clean sound that sits in the mix well and that’s never overbearing or harsh. If that’s your objective, the Mack Gem 2G is well worth checking out.
you need a small, affordable, and surprisingly loud head with brawny clean tones.
you prefer metal-style saturation and preamp gain.
Direct $449 - Mack Amps - mackamps.com