november 2010

American-made combo with "blackface" and "brownface" channels

Download Example 1
Strat, clean tone on Blackface channel at 22-watts
Download Example 2
Les Paul, mean and dirty tone, Brownface channel at 10-watts
Download Example 3
Richmond Dorchester bluesy-clean open tuning tone, Blackface channel at 22-watts
Clips recorded with a Shure SM57 into a Chandler LTD-1 mic pre directly into Pro Tools.
3rd Power Amplification may be a fairly new name in the amp business, but don’t mistake that for inexperience. Designer Jamie Scott has chased perfect tone for several decades, a quest that began in his early days as the original (and current) guitarist for the San Francisco metal band, Vain. Debuting at the 2010 summer NAMM show in Nashville, the handwired, Fender Deluxe-inspired American Dream is the second amp to be released from 3rd Power.

American Built, American Vibe
The American Dream is a 1x12 combo utilizing a Celestion Alnico Gold speaker housed in a very striking and unique cabinet. The cab incorporates 3rd Power’s triangular speaker chamber, which is designed to eliminate standing waves and enhance clarity. There are two vents that let sound escape through the sides of the amp, as well as a removable triangular back panel that lends a touch of open-back sound. With its white Tolex and salt-and-pepper grille cloth, the American Dream looks very mid-century American. And adorned with a black control panel with white chicken head knobs, heavy-duty toggles, and a red jewel light, the amp looks cool, classy, and functional.

The front panel is fairly sparse, given there are two channels available. From left to right, Channel 1 (the “brownface” channel) features an input, Bright switch, Volume, and Tone controls. Channel 2 (“blackface”) also has an input and Bright switch, but is followed by Volume, Treble, and Bass controls. A global Presence knob and 3-way switch with settings for 22 watts, standby, and 10 watts is adjacent to the Power switch and jewel light. The back panel has an IEC power input, fuses, and four speaker outputs (16 Ω external, 8 Ω internal, and 8 Ω internal + 8 Ω external).

The American Dream runs on a pair of 6L6 power tubes and boasts a two-stage preamp that uses 12AX7 preamp tubes. Staying true to the vintage concept, there is no effects loop or reverb on the amp.

Plug and Play
Because it’s not bogged down by bells and whistles, getting a good tone with the American Dream pretty much comes down to plugging in and playing. You’d have to work hard to get a bad sound out of the amp, but make no mistake—that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of tonal variety inside. Plugging my Les Paul into the Brownface channel, I dialed in a killer, dirty tone that conjured up sounds reminiscent of the first Montrose record. There was some of the low-end splatter that comes from a cranked Fender, but that’s part of the charm of playing this style of amp. Note definition and clarity was superb and dynamic response was excellent. This is a very touch-sensitive amp. Without accessing the guitar’s volume knob, I went from clean to dirty just by digging in harder with the pick—and this amp likes hard picking!

Like many vintage brownface amps, there is less headroom and the mids bark a little more. But the triangular internal design and side vents open up the sound and give it a wide, dimensional quality that feels like full-blooming stereo compared to the highly focused and compressed projection of a normal, closed-back cab. Removing the triangular back panel lets the amp breathe even more, and the tone opens up accordingly. Engaging the Bright switch adds more top-end spank and chime, while the Tone control, though somewhat subtle, offers plenty of range.

As I explored this channel, I found the global Presence control becomes more effective as the amp revs up in volume. This control is voiced in such a way that the tone never gets harsh or brittle, just fuller and more cutting in the mids.

Clear as Black
Moving to the Blackface channel gave me more headroom and clarity, making the American Dream perfect for mating with pedals. The combo revealed the full character of just about every pedal I threw in front of it. If you’re a guitarist who favors pedal textures, this amp makes a perfect blank slate.

Switching guitars to a Fender Stratocaster made it clear why the combination of Strat and Deluxe has always been so revered. From the first chord, the American Dream was bold, chimey, clear, and powerful. The response of the amp felt like an extension of my nervous system. It was both immediate and springy, giving me the feeling of the guitar being played back from the amp. Typically when I play with this clean of a setting, my amp feels a little too unforgiving, but in this case it was positively inspiring. At full volume, the American Dream gave way to a beautiful, blooming gain that was warm, detailed, and willing to get rude with a little force from my right hand.

When I switched to the 10-watt output setting, I experienced an apparent, but not huge volume drop. The most obvious change was in the response. It became a little darker in tone, but there was also a spongier feel and faster breakup in the tone. I liked this setting for pushing the amp and getting some grit without killing everyone in the house with volume, and I could see the effectiveness of this option for clubs. It’s a great feature and adds useful tonal variety to what seems like a very simple amp, when you look at the front panel.

The Verdict
The American Dream reminds you how much you can do with simplicity, and how a few knobs can offer a wide world of tone. The innovative cabinet design opens up a new dimension in sound dispersion, and the amp makes you never want to quit playing. For all its clarity and richness, it makes pedals sound terrific. And while it isn’t a small combo, it doesn’t weigh a ton. It’s easy to see myself taking the American Dream along with a few pedals to just about any gig and getting every tone under the sun. One can dream, right?

Buy if...
you love classic American tones and want a perfect blank slate for exploring pedal tones.
Skip if...
you need a Swiss-Army amp to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.

Street $2499 - 3rd Power Amplification -

Lithium Ion power for pedals

Get Juiced
Sanyo’s KBC-9V3U Pedal Juice is housed in a sleek, white plastic box reminiscent of an Apple computer peripheral and comes with a handy nylon carrying case. This relatively diminutive power supply has the same dimensions—2.5" x 4.7" x 1.7"—as those of a standard effects pedal, so it’ll fit neatly into an open slot on a pedalboard. Weighing in at a mere .9 pounds, the box adds inconsequential weight to a rig, and it’s waterproof and shock resistant to boot.

Unlike the other units in this roundup, the Pedal Juice is rechargeable. With its lithium-ion battery technology, it can be fully powered in 3.5 hours and deliver up to 50 hours of continuously clean power for a 10 mA effects pedal, up to 27 for a 100 mA pedal, and around five hours for the 500 mA current draw typical of a large multi-effect unit. An LED on the top of the box indicates the battery’s power level—a green light shows that the battery power is above 60 percent; orange, between 30 percent and 60 percent; and red, less than 30 percent.

Containing just two 9V DC output jacks, the Pedal Juice is the least flexible of the three power supplies reviewed here. If you want to power more than two pedals, you’ll have to daisy-chain them together with cables (not included), making sure not to plug pedals with opposite polarity into the Pedal Juice. (A polarization cable is included with the unit.) For users with just a handful of pedals, or a single pedal and multi-effects processor, the Pedal Juice is perfect— especially in situations where you’re a considerable distance from an electrical outlet.

After charging the Pedal Juice, which actually only took about 2.5 hours, I auditioned it using my Frantone overdrive and Boss digital delay, connecting the pedals to the power supply with the included cables. With its single on/off button, the power supply was su-per-easy to use. It provided clean power without any humming and coloring of my guitar tone, and the charge remained in the green for a full weekend of playing.

Buy if...
you’ve got only a couple or a few pedals to power.
Skip if...
your pedals are numerous and your power requirements are more complex.

Street $150 - Sanyo -

Tone Games 2010: 30 Stompboxes Reviewed
Next in PEDALBOARD EXTRAS: T-Rex Fuel Tank Chameleon

Can a guitar be designed optimally for pedals?

The Esarvee L’il Wing switcher—for guitarists bold enough to explore the sound of a naked ’64 Vibroverb.
Honestly, it started as a joke. I’d called on my friend Mike Piera, the high priest of pedals known in the effects world as Analog Man, to suggest that we collaborate on my new line of pedals for the historically challenged tone traveler. As an old-school guitarist and builder, I am a practitioner of plugging directly into an amp and using the guitar’s controls to alter volume, distortion, and tone. Occasionally, I’d employ a boost pedal, wah, or maybe even a chorus pedal, but only under protest. I decided that my vintage approach could be the basis for a new twist on pedal design. My first offering was a fairly simple affair, just an A-B box with specific directions on what to insert before and after. But Analog Man was having none of it—he didn’t see the humor.

Actually, the idea came to me after chatting with a client who had called with a question about stompboxes. The guy was an SRV disciple who’d heard that I’d gotten a guided tour of Stevie’s stage rig by the man himself and wanted to know which effects pedal could deliver what he called the “SRV clean tone.” It seemed that my inquisitive caller had many boxes—distortion, boost, fuzz, delay, chorus, and so on—but none for the aforementioned clean sound. After some deliberation, I suggested a box made by Fender called the Vibroverb. My caller paused, and then picked my brain about where to find one. It was at that moment I imagined an entire line of switchers for those who were bold enough to explore the sound of a naked guitar amp.

Analog Man later gave me a DVD entitled The Art of the Stompbox from The Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California. The video featured Nels Cline and Henry Kaiser jamming relentlessly with a huge smorgasbord of effects pedals. Mike hoped I’d come to understand the signal chain from his perspective. Coincidentally, I had started hearing the phrase “pedal-friendly” being used in reference to pickups and guitars. In my newly enlightened state, I set out to understand what it is that makes a guitar capable of bonding with these picky little pedals.

As a builder, I’m mostly interested in giving each instrument character—a voice that can be heard when you plug the guitar directly into an amp. I naturally gravitate to building expressive instruments that stand on their own, and regard effects as “sweeteners,” as opposed to the basis for someone’s sound. In my recent column on choosing pickups, I revealed how I even consider pickups to be completely secondary to the guitar’s voice. But what do other builders think? Do they ever consider this electronic friendliness issue when designing their wares? Not surprisingly, Jason Lollar (who builds both guitars and pickups) views things similarly to me. “I want to hear definition and tone coming out the other end,” he reveals. “I’m more of a plug-straight-into-the-amp guy.”

Still, he reckons that lower-output pickups are the key to getting great sounds from both big pedalboards and high-gain preamp circuits. “Even metal guys, like Jimi Hazel and the guys in Metallica, are using lower-output pickups,” says Lollar. Evan Skopp at Seymour Duncan concurred that a “sweet, clean tone is a better platform to get good results from pedals.”

Greg Timmons at Lollar’s shop brought it into sharp focus in a way I completely understood. “I’m a gigging musician,” he said, “and if I have to rent a backline amp, I’m going to use my pedalboard to give me the sound I need. There are pickups that are highly EQ’d, as opposed to organic and musical. Those EQ’d pickups don’t tend to work as well with effects.”

To gain a little more insight, I decided to test a number of different pickups in a single guitar to see what made a difference. In order to facilitate pickup swapping, I threw together a “mule” test guitar that allowed me to change pickups from the rear without having to detune the strings. After a few swaps, a pattern seemed to emerge that followed what the pickup guys were saying.

First off, as Timmons suggested, the pickups with significant midrange bumps seemed to get lost more quickly when I applied fuzz-type distortion. Single-coils were very adept at cutting through delays and other time-based effects, but their signal-to-noise ratio made boosting them a hit-or-miss situation overall. Lower-power actives, like the EMG H model, worked brilliantly with multiple effects where the basic sound of the guitar was heavily modified, but still required some moderate boosting for convincing, fat lead tones.

Trying to draw a conclusion that relates directly to guitar design, I reasoned that a guitar that provides a clear and even response with lots of string definition might be the best match for a hot date with a pedalboard. As I moved between the guitars in my test stable, this seemed to pan out. Spruce-topped, long-scale guitars sliced through multiple fuzz applications without creating too much sag, while fat, humbucker-equipped mahogany guitars seemed to almost create a signal-chain traffic jam. However, like so many puzzles in the guitar universe, everything seemed to be a tradeoff. I wasn’t finding one instrument that covered it all. Still, I wondered if there was a way to change the output and resonant frequency of a pickup designed for pedals without sacrificing the pure tone and character of a bold, passive pickup. Like my A-B box comedy-pedal concept, I’m going to have to work on that one—and that’s no joke.

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