Saturday, November 3, 2007

All geared up

Thought I'd do a little retrospective of all the amps/amp related gear I've owned over the years (as far as I can remember)...

My first guitar amp was a Ross RG30. I remember the day I got it.. it was a gift from my father, around the time I bought my Telecaster. My dad actually scoured the classified section of the newspapers to look for a second hand guitar amp. Turns out the person selling it was a down and out musician living in a rundown apartment in Geylang. My Dad and I went down to his place to have a look at the amp. I had absolutely no clue about amps, or guitars for that matter, back then (this was some 13 years ago). What I do remember was the guy who sold it to us.

He was living in a one bedroom apartment in Geylang, the seedy part (if you could call it that). I remember he said he was a professional musician. He had this guitar case, that was covered with stickers from all over the world. Let's just say even as a little kid I could see that that wasn't quite how I'd want to be living out the prime of my life. Later on my Dad said that he wanted me to go down and have a look at where this man was staying, and what he was doing with his life. I think he was trying to warn me about the perils of being a "musician". Over the years it's become clear to me that there's a difference between being a professional musician, and a "musician", but that experience was certainly an eye-opener for me at 13. Suffice to say, that little solid-state Ross amp wasn't all that impressive.

Once I grew tired of the Ross, and that didn't take long at all, I started reading up on affordable amps that I could upgrade to. It was around this time that I came to know of Tech21 NYC, who were renowned for their Sansamp products. I believe it was also around this time that they came out with their first amp, the Tech 21 Trademark 60. I still remember, the only dealer for Tech21 in Singapore at the time was Sinamex. I went down, and they had one in stock, so I gave it a bit of a test run and then started to think about how I could scrounge up enough cash to take one home.

It was a nice little amp, with a few neat touches. The chicken head knobs, the tweed grill, the tolex, and the foot switch. To the 16 year old kid I was back then, it sure felt godlike! I didn't think it sounded half bad either. To be honest, I was rather smitten. To this day I still think it's a neat little amp for the money.

Awhile after the whole solid state thing, something new hit the market. In a way I think of it as a product that's revolutionized the way people thought about amps and DIY recording, and continues to do so til this day. The first generation Line6 Pod was released. While everybody else was doing these foot controlled multi-effect units, Line6 released this red kidney bean shaped product, which downplayed the "effect" part of the equation and put amp modelling right at the forefront.

I remember heading down to City Music after school on several occasions to give that Pod a test run. I wasn't willing or able to buy it first hand though, but a school mate of mine was letting one go at a good price so I got in on some of that action. Was it awesome? No, not really. Was it worth the money? Hell yeah! The Pod introduced me to the world of digital modelling as we know it today. It was relatively versatile, didn't quite do anything fantastically but did a great many things in an acceptable fashion. I remember when the Pod 2.0 update came out. This was way before flashing your firmware at home was a common thing. I was too cheap to pay someone to install it for me so I ordered the EPROM chip online, cracked open the Pod and upgraded that sucker.

Eventually I got bitten by the whole rack-mount bug, and figured hey if I'm going to own a Pod I might as well get the Pod Pro. I was rather disappointed that essentially it was identical to the bean but for an S/PDIF and AES EBU digital output. Although it did come in a nice shiny metallic unit... and everyone knows that that's the whole point of racks. Lots of shiny metal and blinking lights! The Line 6 floorboard was plenty neat as well. It was the first time I'd seen a Cat 5 cable used to connect a MIDI controller to an effects unit, and I remember thinking that it was an ingenius idea. No hassle trying to figure out which pins phantom power was on, no problems with MID cables, no need to figure out how to map CC commands and all that jazz.... That was all to come later for me.

Eventually I decided to go from solid state and digital to tubes and digital. It was around this time that I scoured all of Singapore for a Mesa/Boogie dealer, only to discover... that there was none. I ended up having to order it in from the USA. After thinking about it for some time I decided to go with a 50/50 power amp and a 2x12 Recto cab (I'm pretty sure his had something to do with my then guitar tutor's Triaxis + 50/50 rig and my burgeoning interest in Dream Theater).

I still reckon that power amp and cab sounded pretty righteous, I eventually got the chance to play several gigs with it when I moved to Australia. It was loud. Really loud. Too loud. And now it's gone. Those two units were heavy though, and they definitely taught me something. If you're going to live on the third floor of a building that has no elevator, don't own 60KG of equipment.. it's just not a bright idea.

Eventually I became a bit of a tube head. It was about this time that I discovered a small boutique company, VHT amps. They seemed to have a good rep and I they were coming out with a new product, the VHT GP3. I'd been reading about these on forums for awhile, and they looked really interesting. Again, there was no dealer in Singapore, so I took a gamble and called up VHT in the states to see how much one of these would run me. Thus began the worst business transaction of my life, and if I knew then what I knew now I would never have let them get away with it. The sales rep on the phone told me that since there was no dealer in Singapore, I could get it at dealer price. Hearing this, and seeing that it was a substantial discount from retail, I quickly made all the arrangements, sold off the Pod Pro, wired them the money, and waited patiently for it to arrive. And waited patiently to arrive... and waited patiently to arrive.

And then... I was told, by Steve Fryette no less, that the amp was going to ring me more than double what I was told. After I had paid, in full, the price that was agreed upon. In retrospect, this was *clearly* a breach of contract. VHT wasn't making a loss on this product since they were selling it to me at what dealers paid for it. I, on the other hand, had put myself through great inconvenience to acquire it, inconvenience which I was willing to endure based on what was told to me by a sale representative (who, indisputably, had ostensible, if not actual authority and hence VHT would have been bound to honour the contract).

Long story short, being the naive child I was, I paid up, received a unit with a bent rack ear, and quietly played it for a couple of years before selling it off at a substantial loss. Sure, it did sound pretty good, didn't turn out to be the right amp or me but I won't dispute it sounded good. But since then I've decided I will never, as long as I live, own another VHT product. I refuse to do business with a company who's founder can't do something as simple as honour a simple business deal with a little kid halfway around the world who was legally in the right but too ignorant to do anything about it, even when wasn't in a position to make a loss out of the bargain.

While in Sydney, I picked up a little Marshall Studio 15. This little amp tube amp was *loud*. I remember one Sunday afternoon I was rocking out, and I had it cranked pretty high. So high in fact, that a neighbour from across the road turned up banging at my door. As it turns out, his wife had just come home from the hospital the day before after having given birth, and he was angrier than an elephant that just had it's testicles crushed by a medium sized boulder.

I think he was expecting some sort of altercation, but the situation was diffused rather quickly and he seemed fairly satisfied with the result. Besides, that was the last I ever saw of him. The shop I bought it from claimed that it was the actual amp used on an AC/DC recording back in the 70s but.. who's to say. Not that I really cared either way...

My love/hate relationship with Tech21 eventually led me to acquire a Sansamp PSA-1. For the longest time, I had coveted this unit, having been a fan of their amps and pedals. I eventually found one in Sydney at a good price and couldn't say no. I used it on and off for quite some time, but like all the other Sansamp products I'd owned, I eventually ended up selling it. It was versatile, and had a unique character, but perhaps it's character was just too unique for its own good.

The distorted tones could get pretty over the top but they always sounded a little bit too fuzzy to me, when I was really going for a more liquidy sort of tone. The cleans, I also always found a little lacking. It really couldn't do that JC-120 sort of pristine clean tone. Everything else sounded a little bit harsher than what I was going for, but it certainly had a charm about it despite all my complaints.

Eventually, I grew tired of having to lug all that equipment around and started looking at Line6 again since they'd just released the Pod XT series. I was particularly intrigued by the Pod XT series after reading up about how Line 6 had updated amp and cabinet simulations, and eventually acquired a Pod XT Pro. Unfortunately, after a couple of years of playing with all that tube stuff it was a crushing disappointment. Nothing sounded, good, nothing sounded right, and I got fed up with it and sold it off fairly quickly. Perhaps a little too quickly because for the last 2 years or so, I ended up playing through a Pod XT Live and loving it.

Ahh the Pod XT Live. It's got me singing praises about Line6 all over again. After they updated the cabinet simulations in the 3.0 patch I think it was, suddenly it was like someone breathed new life into the Pod XT series. I ended up using this as my main unit for the last 2 years or so, I think it was, and it was an absolute blast. The model packs were also worth the coin of the realm that I handed over for them. It's really a neat little unit, that pretty much does it all. Much like it's predecessors, it's not perfect. But it sure gives you damn good value for money.

It was versatile, it was portable, it was rugged, pretty much everything I needed at the time. And really, if someone comes up to me looking for an amp that portable, not too loud, versatile, and affordable, I personally couldn't recommend anything better than this. Hook it up to a decent pair of speakers, or a PA, and you're pretty much good to go.

I'll end off with a bunch of recordings that I have lying around for some of these amps, so you can hear for yourself what they sounded like. That speaks a lot louder than any of my words ever could, literally.

NB:These tracks were all recorded at different times over the span of years, so the recording quality and playing varies greatly between them

Pod XT Live (Chambered 6-string Soloway)
My Friend of Misery cover

Other recordings of the Pod XT Live can be heard in the Sand Theft Audio post

VHT GP3 + Mesa/Boogie 50/50 + Mesa/Boogie Recto 2x12 (Ibanez RG2027)
The Fangs In My Carrot

Here are some links if you want to find out more about any of these amps/companies

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