Friday, 8 February 2008

Sound Advice

I don't know about you, (dims lights), but tonight, (pauses to light candles, turn on Marvin Gaye cd), I'm (cue sound f.x. of 'seductive' growling noises, interrupted a hacking coughing fit which spoils the mood somewhat). And here's why:

"A truly great name in British amplification makes its return to the UK. Sound City Mark 6 Series are valve amps - glowing, glowering and growling. These amps are not "sound-a-like" or "Valve-o-tronic" (or whatever). These are the real deal."

Sound good? Like what you've read so far? I'll bet you do, you naughty, naughty people. But wait, there's more:

"All feature 12AX7 preamp valves for that fantastic "hooligan" British tone...with EL84 power-amp section valves"

Phwoarrr!! "hooligan" tone, eh? Has that got your nipples a bit perky, hmm? Does 'guitar porn' get much better than this? And it can be yours for a mere £249.99 (possibility of a cash discount - nudge, nudge, wink ,wink, need I say more?) They go on to say:

The 1x10 SC20C is perfect for practice or recording - or crank it up and listen to that warm, edgy "broken-up" distortion that only valves can deliver." (cue s.f.x. of needle scraping across a record, cars screeching to a halt, emergency sirens get the idea). No, I'm afraid it really, really, isn't. Perfect, I mean. Not for anything, in any musical shape or form. Not even half-decent, I'm afraid. This, you see, is a prime example of shop website advertising exploiting a long-standing guitarists' prejudice filter. As George Orwell might have put it, (if he'd had long hair, a dyed goatee and a 'Woodstock' stare), "Valve amps good, Valve stacks better". This mantra, in varying forms, has been repeated so many times over the years in highly reputable guitar magazines (oh, ok, and in shoddily-produced, cruddy ones too), that it has become something of a golden rule, a mighty Law of Amplification, whose greatness and obvious truth shall not be questioned.

Indeed, when it comes to the absolute top-end of the market, I'd have to concede that yes, massive valve stacks sound fabulous. Only a tiny fraction of the planet's guitarists will ever play in a space large enough to warrant them, (not that that stops some folk - I recall being in a medium-sized pub in Edinburgh's Cowgate one night, when the band [of deafness-fanatics, apparently] pitched up with a matched pair of 100w Marshall full stacks - turned up to 11, of course. The bass player [poor sod] had a 400w Trace set-up, and might as well not have been plugged-in, for not a low-end note could be heard. In fact, nothing was audible, except over-loud, under-talented banal rock riffage - even shouting drinks orders at the bar staff at a range of less than 2 feet wasn't working, so we left. You could still make out the band over half a mile away...), and possess sufficient roadies so as to avoid the otherwise inevitable long-term back problems. But still, the sound they make is tremendous, agreed. Extrapolating down, however, as many are wont to do, and regarding anything valve-based as being instantly and inevitably superior to the transistor alternative, that ain't so clever. Come with me, dear reader, to an extremely wet day (yeah, so many to choose from around here! ) about a month ago, where I am in the Edinburgh branch of the UK's largest instrument retailer, about to encounter the aforementioned Sound City 20-watt valve beast for the first time...

Now, I was genuinely interested in this amp. It appeared to be small enough to be portable (and not take up too much space in an already-cluttered flat ), yet loud enough for rehearsal/small gigs, the price was decent (I actually had some money ), and, of course, it was all valve - the 'holy grail' was potentially purchasable!

(Before we go any further, I'd like to assert that I am in no way, nor ever have been, an 'amp snob'. If it sounds good, then it is good, as far as I'm concerned, irrespective of circuitry, speaker or manufacturer's logo. Hey, I'll even stand up in court and swear that I've heard players making pleasing noises with Peavey Bandits, ok? But still...this little baby was all valve...!! )

As per usual, I chose a medium-cheap guitar to test it with, (c.f. the Marshall Artist & Hamer guitar I found in York - "Southbound Again", January 10th), and my eyes lit upon a Spector Arc6 Pro hanging near the checkout. I'd had a bash on a couple of their basses, which were entirely-moderate-but-looked-nice, and the guitar was reduced from £399 to £199 (same as the Hamer), so it seemed ideally suited for the job.

This, as it turned out, was my first mistake. Down in York, the Hamer had proved to be an excellent piece of kit, and the marriage of it and the Artist was nothing less than a spectacular experience. Unfortunately, the Spector was, not to put too fine a point on it, crap. Well, to be fair, the first one I used was technically broken, (no sound from the bridge pickup), not plain crap. The neck felt fine, and the neck pickup worked ok. The second one, alas, had two working pickups, but an unpleasant problem around the nut area on the lowest two strings, and tedious intonation/holding tuning issues. This didn't reflect well either on Spector's (Chinese) factory quality control (some guy out the back chain-smoking, pausing only to nod vigorously whenever someone came out and stuck a guitar under his nose?), or on the shop's basic stock maintenance. Probably a bit of both.

Still, the guitar difficulties could be worked-around. Shame the same couldn't be said for the amplifier. It was....well...terrible. To use an appallingly obvious gag, it was the biggest let-down since Tony Blair...oh dear. That was cheap, wasn't it? About the same quality as the amp, all things considered.

I'm not even sure where to start when it comes to listing its myriad faults and deficiencies. The tone was so treble-heavy, the only way to get any kind of full-bodied sound out of it was to crank the bass knob up to about 9 o'clock (having no numerical indicators on the top panel may be a 'cool' bit of design, but is howlingly impractical when trying to fine-tune amp settings...grrrr), while shoving the treble and middle under half-way. (I've no idea what frequency the mid-range is centred on, except that it's not the right one). This applied equally whether playing clean, or engaging the angry-bee-in-a-biscuit-tin-of-fizz overdrive, whose control leapt from 'none' to 'great steaming buckets' in the space of roughly a millimetre. (Incidentally, nothing I tried with the guitar - pickup selection, winding the tone back, etc - made the slightest bit of improvement.) "Warm, edgy, 'broken up' distortion" my hairy backside!

Did someone simply fit the wrong potentiometer? I mean, how badly do you have to design and build your circuit board to rob an all-valve amp of, well, its inherent 'valve-ishness'? (Or should that be 'valve-osity'? ) This dreadfulness was carried-through to the reverb, which again, went from zero to 'drops of water landing in a pool at the back of a very, very large cave' with the tiniest of movements.

After 20 minutes of increasing frustration with the beast, one of the staff came over (a trying-ever-so-hard-to-be 'cool' Liverpudlian - I think ? - with a pop-kid 'McFly' hairdo that he was at least ten years too old for), and asked me what I thought of the Mark 6. Choking back the desire to be ruthlessly honest, I said it was 'disappointing' and 'not very versatile'. With a facial expression that conveyed his utter horror and contempt (simultaneously, which is pretty tricky), he countered with "Yeah, well, it has a very particular sound, you know? It's great for Britpop and that...". Well, that sealed it for me. Britpop. A dead-end musical sub-genre that was, I thought, well and truly deceased a few years ago...and a damn good thing too, frankly. Nice use of the word 'particular', too...not a definition I'd ever come across before, obviously, but then we should always be open to new ideas...

So, that was a complete bust then. Ah, well. I'm not complaining - I'm ever-so-slightly-tearing Sound City a new one, maybe, but not complaining as such - as of two days ago, I became the delighted owner of a Session Duette, 60-watt (LOUD! ), 1x12" totally solid-state amp from the late 1980s. Sure, it's currently in the hands of the local repair guru, having a well-deserved overhaul (scratchy pots, one of the ridiculously tiny wires inside the accutronics reverb unit has 'eroded', etc,etc), but what an incredible device! In one 10-minute session, without touching the tone (only treble & bass, but that's all this baby needs ) controls, I was able to take it from a 'Rolling Stones' bluesy crunch, through early Clapton into Cream, then on to AC/DC, Motorhead, and up into 80's hair metal, merely by increasing the overdrive level. Now that is versatility. And it sounded bloody amazing through the entire range - with nary a valve in sight. It wouldn't quite stray into Nightwish/Amberian Dawn territory, sure, but give it a break - it's twenty years old, and anyway, that's what pedals are for!

The clean channel is almost scarily clean - I prefer a slightly 'warmer', Marshall-ish 'clean' myself, but it's ideal for plugging effects boards into, so who's moaning? Plus it has an effects loop, and two guitarists can plug in at the same time - the amp channels are completely discrete. Oh, and did I mention the price? Less than half the cost of the Sound City (say that using a generic 'Sean Connery' impression and you'll have summed-it up pretty accurately ), including postage. Good old Ebay. Examples pop up quite regularly, as does its slightly smaller predecessor, the Rockette 30 - as used by Eric Clapton, on the 'August' album, apparently - and the 'daddy' of the Session range, the wonderful "Sessionette 75".

Award-Session stopped making amps for a while, but they're back in business now, and all their products are definitely worth a listen. Head honcho, Stewart Ward, has very interesting views (some may say 'controversial' - I couldn't possibly comment ) about amplification, and if you, like me, aren't an electronics genius (complete ignoramus in my case), simply want to know more, or are curious about an alternative take to 'valves rule' hegemony, then you could do a lot worse than click here, and see what the man has to say.

He does, after all, build a mean little amp - what better reason could you need?

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