A survey of lightweight rigs
Up until a couple years ago I was long-time tube-amp fanatic. My preferences in tube amps ran to heavy amps: Mesa/Boogies, then Fender Twins and Vibro-Kings. Eventually I got tired of lugging all that iron (a significant portion of a tube amp's weight is in its transformers). I set out on a quest to find a great-sounding tube amp weighing about 30 pounds. I eventually concluded that can't be done without sacrificing clean headroom. The closest match I found to my requirements was the Tone King Meteor II. It's a great-sounding amp that weighs 40 pounds. It's not inexpensive, though, at well over $2,000 new.
So I started rethinking my priorities. Was I willing to continue to lug a hundred pounds of gear (amp, guitar in HSC, pedalboard) to get "the sound" I thought I wanted? No, I wasn't. That opened up two new lines of questioning:
- How good can I make my rig sound without the excess weight?
- How much weight can I trim from my rig?
I played a lot of lightweight amps and modelers. I owned and used and gigged quite a few. Here are some of my recollections:
- Fender Cyber-Deluxe: I owned one of these. It has the classic Fender sound plus a lot of decent modern tones. With the exception of the compressor (which on its lowest setting was way over the top for my tastes) the built-in effects are some of the best I've heard. I gigged this on stages where the venue mic'd everything; most of the time I set up the amp facing me from the front or side of stage.
- Line6 Spider: I owned one of the original versions of this back in 2000, so it really didn't figure into my search for a lightweight amp this time around. It is in fact very light. I'm not a big fan of the Line6 sound, though. Still, I'd suggest giving the newer Spiders a listen to see whether there's anything you can work with.
- Peavey Transtube Studio Pro II: This is a surprisingly good amp. It has a decent touch-response. The tonality of the gain channel didn't really excite me that much. There are two generations of this amp. I played both side-by-side and preferred the newer version. I know that others prefer the earlier version. Just goes to show that tastes differ... You should try to check out both.
- Fender Pro Junior: I auditioned this after receiving a number of recommendations. I didn't like it at all. See my earlier remarks about small tube amps having insufficient clean headroom.
- Fender Blues Junior: See above.
- Fender Jazzmaster Ultralight: This could be a very nice amp depending upon your needs. The clean channel sounds good at lower volumes. The drive channel is best suited for really saturated distortion tones. The effects are OK, but not as good as in the Cyber-Deluxe. My impression was that the Ultralight got a bit strident at higher volumes and that it sounded a bit boxy. Note that you're pretty much stuck with Fender's matching speaker. The amp requires a 2-ohm load to deliver full power.
- Vox Tonelab: I owned the desktop unit for a while. It's kind of seductive to see the tube behind the plastic, even though the glow comes from an LED behind the tube. If all you want is that pushed-Vox sound then this might be OK. Their other amp models weren't very convincing. There was always a certain brittleness that I couldn't dial out of the clean sounds. The effects were especially weak compared to most other modelers, IMO.
- Boss GT-8: This is the one that finally convinced me to part with my Vibro-King amps. It does the low-gain and edge-of-distortion tones very well with a bit of programming. Programming is not simple, but I figured out what I needed to know in about 8 hours with a full read through the manual and some online resources. I've gigged many times with the GT-8 into the stage DI with nothing but the venue's stage monitors for my stage sound. I never had any need for high-gain tones; I've seen some negative comments about those tones from players with critical ears. You have a broad palette of Boss effects at your disposal, most of which sound good. The pitch effects, though, are not as robust as you'd get from Digitech. The GT-8 (and the current production unit, the GT-10) has a ton of potential for players willing to invest some time in learning how to program it.
- Fractal Audio Axe-FX: Three of my friends have these. They sound great and, in my limited experience with them, seem to be fairly easy to program. Comparing the Axe-FX to the Boss GT-8, the two biggest advantages to the Axe-FX are its incredibly low noise floor (which may not matter unless you're tracking in a studio) and its outstanding pitch effects. You don't have to get into deep editing, but you can with the same ease that you'll find for basic programming. If you have any intention of changing patches during a performance you'll have to buy and program a MIDI foot controller of some kind.
- Digitech RP-350: This is my current modeler. It's considerably smaller and lighter than the GT-8 and has a built-in stereo DI. Programming the RP-350 is childs' play compared to the GT-8. On the downside, there is hardly any flexibility in what you can program. The effects, including the pitch effects, are uniformly good. The amp models are pretty good, but you have to take them for what they are. The ability to fine-tune amp models is practically nonexistent compared to the adjustments available on the GT-8. You're also limited (compared to the GT-8) by having only three footswitches, all of which have fixed functions. This doesn't bother me since I only use one patch, but most people will want to think about how they'll work with patch up/down buttons to get the changes they'll need.
- Roland Cube 30X: This has the benefit of light weight at about 20 pounds. The effects are just passable, IMO. This is certainly not a bad amp, but it never inspired me to play it very much and I only gigged it once. It's certainly worth a try though to see whether you like it.
- Acoustic Image: I've played and heard several of these, but never owned one. The Clarus through a Raezer's Edge cab is an outstanding clean amp. I'm less impressed with the all-in-one Coda and Corus. These are all full-range clean amps with built-in ambient effects. You'll need pedals for distortion and other effects.
- AER Compact 60: This is in the same class as the AI amps, above. Totally clean with built-in ambient effects. This weighs only 18 pounds (closer to 20 with the included padded carrying bag) and takes up slightly less than a cubic foot of space. You're not going to get tons of low-end, but I find the tonal balance to be quite well-suited for my semi-hollow guitars. Unlike the Jazzmaster Ultralight, the Compact 60 performs well at higher volumes.
That's pretty much all I can remember at the moment. In closing, I want to offer this thought: You get out of your gear what you put into your music. Don't get hung up on labels. Particular technologies (tube, SS, modeling) are not inherently good or bad. Audition everything you can and play what works for you.