Since the introduction of their Composite Object Sound Modeling [COSM] in 1995, Roland has been active with, and often on the vanguard of modeling technology. Their excellent Cube- and VGA-series amps are among the best examples of how modeling can work convincingly, be practical, and stay accessibly priced. Still, modeling amps are not for everyone. A lot of old-school players remain steadfast in their skepticism, while others associate modeling amps with operational complexity.
Roland’s new flagship GA-series amp, the 100-watt GA-112, may not change the minds of analog devotees. But it certainly simplifies and streamlines things by eschewing effects and relying on a single, but much more flexible and manageable COSM model. Dubbed Progressive Amp, it doesn’t model a particular amp, per se. Instead, it gives you a blank slate for sculpting sounds from pristine clean to metal mayhem via a super-simple control set.
Taking It to the Streets
Other than reverb, the GA-112 has no effects. In fact, Roland’s Jazz Chorus (introduced in 1975), with its trademark chorus/ vibrato, has more effects than this COSM maverick. That said, the GA-112 has two effects loops that offer series or parallel signal paths, suggesting an acknowledgement that most players would prefer to work with their own effects and pedalboards, thank you.
Rather than control tones via a virtual zoo of EQ and other amp-parameter controls, the Progressive Amp technology works on the very sensible notion that you can create a vast array of sounds—from clean to filthy—with the combination of just a volume and drive control. The end result is an amp that’s barely more complicated than an old Marshall, but very wide-ranging. Apart from the volume and boost controls (grouped with the push buttons for voice and boost in the Progressive Amp section), there’s a bass/middle/treble EQ section, push buttons for mid boost and selecting the A or B effects loop, presence and reverb controls, a master volume, and five push buttons that enable the selection of four presets or manual control. It may feel a little different in practice than a similarly configured tube amp, but the streamlined control set makes navigating the differences a lot easier.
Rollin’ the Range
With the drive almost all the way off, the GA-112’s clean sounds are pristine and more than a little reminiscent of my Roland JC-120. I wouldn’t say the clean tone is the fattest or warmest around, but it is an iconic sound that works for everything from jazz and rapid-fire fusion to dream pop and shoegaze when you goose the reverb. And there is a seemingly endless amount of headroom.
The amp has a small light that changes colors to indicate the drive level, and it went from green to amber when I moved the drive from a clean setting to the midway point, visually indicating my move into low-gain terrain. Maxing the drive at moderate volume levels is the ticket to mid-gain classic rock or blues territory. And at this point, I pressed the voice button, half expecting an entirely different amp model. Instead, it re-voices the EQ section, boosting the highs and lows for a much bolder tone.
Engaging the boost button changes the amp’s character more significantly—transforming the nature of the drive control in a big way. With the boost on and the drive around 9 o’clock, I got just about the same amount of gain as I did with the drive maxed and the boost disengaged. Turning the drive just slightly past the halfway mark yielded a tight, controlled, high-gain sound that’s ideal for classic metal. And when I cranked the drive, I got into hot-rodded Marshall/Soldano SLO territory, a setting that invited thrash chords and blazing licks, and which truly surprised. I’ve never heard or felt a solid-state amp that could pack quite this much punch on its own.
Even with the amp raging, there was still plenty of clarity. Playing complex and harmonically detailed chord voicings found individual notes ringing with impressive crispness. Engaging the mid boost drives beautiful, singing lead tones that are a great companion to the non-mid-boosted rhythm tone—and you could save these two sounds as presets or use the optional footswitch (which unfortunately comes in at a rather steep $119) to activate and deactivate the mid boost.
One of my favorite GA-112 features is the default auto-save function, which automatically saves settings (there’s also a manual-save option) to the active channel. For many programmable amps and effects, having to press multiple buttons to simply save a preset is complex enough to be a deterrent. And I’ve had many units where I had to refer to the manual to learn that I needed to press one specific button, while holding down another, just to save a minor tweak. In addition to being annoying at home, this can be downright impractical at a gig. Let’s say you’ve realized during a soundcheck that you actually need a little more treble for a verse, so you move the treble knob quickly as you held a chord down. Well, on a gig, you probably wouldn’t have time to save that adjustment—at least if it involved a three-step, two-button procedure. Another common beef with programmable amps is that the knob indicators generally do not move when changing from preset to preset. As a consequence, the settings you see do not necessarily reflect the setting you hear. This disconnect has long been a problem, and while some companies have employed robotically moving knobs or numerical LED displays, the GA-112 has red LED arrows embedded into each knob of the shared control panel—drive, volume, bass, middle, treble, presence, and reverb—which change positions depending on the preset. It’s clever, it’s simple, and it really helps you keep your bearings as you get deeper into the potential of presets.
There’s a ton of processing power under the hood of the surprisingly heavy (54 pounds) GA-112. But Roland went to great lengths to keep things as traditionally amp-like as possible. As a result, the amp feels familiar, highly usable, and very navigable. Considering all the self-contained-rig-type functionality, it's a bit of a surprise that there's no built-in tuner. In that small instance, at least, Roland may have played it too safe. Trying to walk the line between tradition and modeling flexibility does leave the GA-112 with something of an identity crisis at times. It’s not a full-blown modeling amp as we’ve come to know them, but it is much more than just a solid-state amp. Once you really sit down and play the GA-112, however, a lot of those questions go out the window. Most of the time, it sounded good enough that I didn’t care whether it was a tube or a digital amp. And I often got delightfully lost for hours in the music and remarkable range of tones that are available via a very traditional-feeling and simple set of controls. The lack of an included footswitch—and the almost 120 bucks that you have to pay to get one—is a bummer, considering that it’s almost essential to getting the most out of the GA-112 onstage, and that Roland makes much of the amp’s suitability for that role. But in delivering this much sound, so simply, the GA-112 gets most of the way to being a great-sounding, jack-of-all-trades amp solution for under a grand—no mean feat under any circumstances.