Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Reet Petite

I'm afraid it's time for this blog to undergo a major philosophical shift, to alter some of the preconceptions and assumptions about reality that have underpinned it from its first sprouting of vaguely-music-related nonsense, back in 2007. In short, the moment has come to confess "I was wrong" about so very, very much.

Today, in fact, this blog will experience what I can only describe as a "Top Gear" moment. Although without any of the enormous success, viewing figures, awards, salaries, etc,etc that Top Gear has garnered. Obviously. Or indeed Jeremy Clarkson's supreme displays of "wit" and "wisdom". Nae mind, eh?
(Still lashings of prejudice against 'hugely-overpriced and over-rated for what they offer' Fender basses, though. Got to maintain some scraps of continuity and good sense, after all - but even I have to admit the Japanese-built 'Marcus Miller' model is really nice, ok?)

Anyway, what I've tried to do, sporadically, in the past, is take a look at 'reasonably-priced' musical equipment that, however unfashionable or untroubled by a big-name 'badge', delivers great value for money - semi-pro (or more) quality on a restricted budget. That sort of idea.

But I've fallen in love.

And love can do strange things to a man. But more on that later. First, I'd set myself a challenge...

In the middle of last month, I said I was going to try out a bunch of small, lightweight 'practice' amps for the purposes of low-volume personal monitoring at acoustic gigs. Finding myself in that rare and joyous state of being child-free during daylight hours, I hastened across the Forth Bridge to annoy the lovely folk at Red Dog Music in Edinburgh (yet again), where a fair array of wee bass beasts could be put to the test.

But who cares?

Seriously, there's no point in going into any great detail. Almost anything 15w-20w will do the job perfectly, as long as you're not being ridiculous and expecting an astounding tone or the ability to reproduce a colon-shaking low 'B' with perfect sonic clarity. Sure, Line6 have finally made something that sounds quite good, has - as you might expect - lots of features, and might actually be worth buying, but it's a little bulky for the bassist who wants to amble gigwards. The Peavey 158 is smaller, lighter, and passable in "vintage" mode, but don't flip it into "modern" unless you truly detest the people you're gigging with. If you like bright colours, why not buy an Orange? It simply doesn't matter - cheap and cheerful, so long as the speaker doesn't start farting when you turn the volume past '3', is absolutely fine. But who really cares? There's so little to choose between them. These are the Kia Picantos, if you will, the Nissan Micras, the useful, economical, yet characterless urban anonymobiles of the amplifier world. They're low-powered, tidy, unspectacular - and start to rattle in an unpleasant and worrying manner if you drive them slightly too hard.

For those with the patience to seek out something a little different, I personally reckon the coolest thing you could possibly turn up with would be one of these - a good old Marshall Bass 12 from the 80's...assuming you can find one in decent working order. Looks brilliant, sounds...pretty good,actually, and so much better than most of the stuff Marshall have been knocking-out since. It's like a classic Mini Cooper S, only without the rust issues. Well, some of them.

To anyone feeling smug at this point about being wealthy enough to afford the impeccable pedigree, incredible lightness (4.2kg!), and immense price (over £400) of the tiny MarkBass Micromark, let me say three things: Small 'acoustic' gigs are often in the sort of venue where beer seems unfathomably spillable, and it's 6" speaker won't handle a bottom 'B' significantly better than something you could find for under £40 second-hand. I would also love to have one, dammit.

Forget all that, though. Imagine, having chugged around in a Toyota 'Yawnis' with a couple of over-tired children in the back for several hours, you could climb straight into an amazing blend of the best Ferrari, Aston Martin & Lamborghini supercars and head off down one of those impossibly perfect roads that only exist in car adverts - you know, the completely empty ones, where the weather's always perfect, and the perfectly-coiffed-and-attired driver is guaranteed perfect sex with their perfect choice of perfect partner as soon as they arrive - at their perfect shared home in a perfectly dramatic-yet-safe-yet-romantic perfect location, and the planet stays perfectly un-warmed. Oh yes.

In a far more prosaic, not to mention ugly and entirely-non-sexual bass-playing manner, that's precisely what I did next.

One of the staff beguiled me (ok, pointed at the thing) into trying a nearby Ampeg SVT3Pro. And lo! it was, unsurprisingly, absolutely incredible. So it bloody should be, too, at the price (anything from £620 - £1000+ online, £699 in Red Dog). All the features and "POW-ERRR" you could want, and more tone than...anything I'd ever plugged-into before, frankly. So much fun I can't adequately describe it, yet this is not the object of the passionate desire I declared earlier. Oh no.

You see, nestling snugly atop the next speaker cabinet was a much quieter, less flashy, entirely valveless cousin of the roaring, snorting, rack-mountable SVT3.

Allow me to introduce the small, but exquisitely-formed Ampeg Micro-VR: 200 watts, a (mere) 3-band EQ, limiter, FX loop, pre/post eq line out, and could easily snuggle down in my rucksack any time it wants to.

The tone was fantastic - hardly had to shift the controls from "12 o'clock" to make the mediocre Cort 5-string (decent neck, a few minor fret niggles, only £279 so fair enough, really) I was using sound wonderful - full chords, harmonics, fingers or plectrum, the works. Cue lots of bad Tony Levin impressions (mostly "US" period Peter Gabriel) from me...I even dared to apply my thumb in public (a mercifully rare event). The quality and range of sound was a delight - even after messing-around with the "Murcielampeg" SVT.

Then there's the look of this delightful little box - I'm usually a 'form-follows-function' kinda guy, relatively unmoved by aesthetic considerations, but this thing's so danged cute - I mean, take a look at this line-up:

Can hardly spot the Ampeg, can you? Hell, it's almost up there with one of these little fellas:

(ok, so nothing's ever going to be quite as cute as a Red Panda, but c'mon, the Micro-VR comes bloody close. No? Really? Ach, yer a hard-hearted lot, so ye are).

At this point, I handed it over to a (disgustingly) young pro who was up on tour from Druggy-Guardianista-London-by-the-Sea, (aka Brighton). I won't begin to pretend he was dressed from head-to-toe in all-white motor-racing kit, but for now we might as well call him 'Jaco Stigtorious'. He was, I'm afraid, playing a Fender Precision through it, but the Ampeg was sounding so exceptionally good I'll let him off with it - this time.

There is, admittedly, one major stumbling-block that's threatening to destroy our budding relationship - it costs £329, which is at least £300 more than I could justify spending on...anything right now. And yes, at that price, there are plenty of other powerful, high-quality compact amps available (e.g. Ashdown, Hartke, etc, etc). But all the ones I've tried simply can't begin to match the Ampeg for tone and clarity. It's supercar-intensity fun in an incredibly attractive, bit cheaper and more practical form - like a Jaguar XK, maybe?

Anyway, I suppose what I'm trying to say is this - sod the sensible low-end stuff, I adore brilliant Ampeg gear which I can't possibly afford, and I want it really, really badly. What can I do? I'm in love.

And on that bombshell, it's time to end this blog post - goodnight!

p.s. A wee update - just over a week later, I've been back to visit my little object of passionate desire again, only this time I was very rude to it. I asked the guys in the shop (how many plugs can I give them in one post?) for the cheapest bass they had - a no-frills Yamaha RBX, as it turned out. Nothing wrong with that, Yamaha's are always solid enough, although this one was one of the worse examples I've encountered (quite a few minor fret niggles, thin and harshly-trebly neck pick-up, that sort of thing) - and powered up the Micro-VR. Could the super-amp make this built-late-on-a-Friday-afternoon Toyota Yaris of an instrument sound like an AC Cobra at full throttle?

Oh yes.

In fact, it did it so successfully that a couple of customers came over and started asking about the Ampeg...which I tried to demo to the best of my almost-no-retail-experience abilities. They seemed to like it - I certainly hope they bought one, after the amount of aural punishment I meted-out to the rest of the shop in the process. Sorry about that. Got a bit carried away...can't think why.


KJB said...

Hahahaha. I don't fully understand music lingo, but this was an ACE post.

Especially the 'cute' line-up... haha... and wow, Red Pandas. Another animal for me to Google when I have nothing better to do!

Andy Gilmour said...

Heh! Cheers, m'dear...far too kind, as always.

Takes me far too bloody long to put these things together though. But the 'cute animals' parade was a lot of fun, sifting through way too many pictures of small 'fuwwy' things with over-large eyes :-)

And Red Pandas are indeed, as I believe the young persons were saying reasonably recently, "da bomb" :-))

Martin Lennon said...

Right... took me a while, but I'm pretty sure I've got it now: It's the pic on the extreme left, yes?...

Curmudgeon said...

Yes I too don't fully understand the technology but the same goes for Top Gear, however the animals are cute especially the Otter using it's young as a napkin.

Andy Gilmour said...

I've started wondering why Ampeg chose to call the SVT-3PRO something that sounds like one of the subsidiary robots from Star Wars...?

And "Micro-VR" isn't exactly the snappiest name ever, especially for such a great wee beastie.