BTPDX April 2004 Notes
Eight guitar geeks, eighteen amps, four cabs, and gawd-knows-how-many guitars... Nine hours of playing and comparing, interrupted only by two short breaks for some great food and drink. That was BTPDX.
I'm going to separate my remarks into two parts: A brief discussion of the overall organization of the event, followed by my descriptions of the amps that really 'clicked' with me. I hope other attendees will chime in with their own observations.
This was quite a bit different from the Enumclaw gathering last fall. Rather than a cavernous hall, we all crammed into a basement music room that could only fit about six to eight amps at a time, plus most of the attendees. We had folks spilling out into the adjoining 'staging area' to spread out a bit or to get in some conversation away from the higher dB levels.
With only an afternoon ahead of us, we had to organize our amp testing in order for everyone to get a chance to play everything they wanted. We rotated amps through the music room in roughly three groups: big-bottle clean, small-bottle clean, and high-gain. There were a few amps that straddled those arbitrary distinctions - we used those in multiple groups.
I really like the focus that the limited time and space brought to the event. On the other hand, I really would have liked to hear how the amps filled up a larger space. Given more time, it would have been nice to have made some high-quality recordings for comparison purposes. All that's just something to think about for next time... I think yesterday's event was a big success.
The two things that really struck me while listening to all the amps is just how much of a difference there can be in the tonal voicing of amps and cabs, and how quickly my ears start to adapt to a particular voicing as a 'reference'. There were several points during the afternoon when I started to think "these amps are all starting to sound pretty much alike", only to have that perception shattered when we switched to a different amp.
A similar observation carried into distortion voicing. The amps on hand represented a wide range of amount and quality (and by that I mean the nuanced characteristics, not a matter of good vs. bad) of distortion. Some appealed to me more than others, in the sense that some would inspire me and others wouldn't. But every amp found at least one player that could made it sound just heavenly.
My taste in amps has shifted to the lower-gain side over the past couple of years, so I'm going to concentrate my remarks on those. I played a lot of the low-gain amps, and just a couple of the high-gain amps.
I was really looking forward to hearing Rich's Carr Rambler. This is one amp that I've been eyeing for a long time, based upon the clips on Carr's web site. My shoulder injury has had me keeping my eyes open for a great-sounding, lightweight amp. Rich put the Carr through its paces with a single-coil guitar. Man, what a gorgeous clean tone! It had the shimmer and complexity that I love to hear, together with a nice open midrange. Very nice. I tried it with humbuckers, and it retained that beautiful clean. But it's a lot closer to a blackface feel than my Vibro-King, and I just couldn't get that satisfying touch-sensitive jump between clean and distorted. So, for me, the Rambler didn't work from a 'feel' standpoint. But it was certainly a pleasure to listen to. I think the Rambler had one of the most pleasing tonal balances of all the amps I heard yesterday.
Chris brought his /13 (the 4x6V6 version) and Switchhazel A/B box. The /13 is an interesting amp that's been getting talked up a lot on places like The Gear Page. It's a non-MV amp with a reverb clean channel and a non-reverb 'click' channel. The click channel has a pentode front end with tons of gain on tap. The tone control for this channel is a multi-position switch that dials in more or less low-end. A lot of the most interesting sounds out of this amp came from combining the two channels. The combination of the cleaner and more distorted sounds seems very useful, and having the reverb just on the clean channel means that you can play at higher gain settings without having a muddy-sounding 'verb. No news, perhaps, to folks who have experimented with multi-amp setups, but it's really cool to have that all in one amp. I didn't spend a lot time with the /13, because I got the feeling that I could have spent hours exploring all its possibilites. It has a lot of nice sounds in it, and can sound great in the right hands.
The next two amps that caught my attention were Rich's GDS and Jim's Carmen Ghia. (Jim couldn't make it, but sent some gear with Lee and Owen.) I remembered both of these amps from the Enumclaw gathering, and they remain my two favorite EL-84 amps.
Mark brought along a Champ 12 that he picked up recently on E-Bay. I tried it briefly while Mark was out of the room, and couldn't get a sound I liked out of it. But later in the day Mark fired it up through his 2x12 detuned cab and it sounded much better. It's amazing what a difference a cabinet can make. (This same 'cabinet satori' was repeated when Owen's Ultralead sounded a bit anemic through my Boogie 2x12, but fantastic through Mark's cab.)
Over the last couple of years I've gotten away from playing channel-switchers because it felt to me like stomping on the channel button took me to a completely different tonal universe. I tried for a while to just play on the lead channel and use dynamics to get a clean sound, but that didn't work because of the way the channel was voiced on the amps I had played. I mention this because the amp that really got my attention was Chris's Dumble ODS 100 clone.
At first I was only curious about the D-clone because I had never heard one before. And it really didn't seem like anything special at first. Then I noticed how the transition between the clean and overdrive modes was virtually seamless. Aha! Suddenly I had to play this amp. Plugged in my Koll, kicked in the overdrive channel, brushed the strings... gorgeous clean sound. Dug in with my picking hand... killer distorted tone. Looked for, and found, all the shades in between - none of that grainy, edgy sound you find at the transition on many amps. Amazing! I explored this amp just on the overdrive channel until I noticed that the others were starting to wander off, then - reluctantly - unplugged my guitar.
The last amp I played was Chris's THD Flexi. I really liked the way this amp sounded when I listened to others playing it, but just couldn't make it work for me. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. I like a lot of low-end in my tone with a robust clean sound, neither of which were design goals for this amp. It's odd - I love that Marshall sound, but have never liked playing one...
One more story, then I'm done. At the end of the night, after most of the gear had been staged out to the basement and people were starting to think about heading out, Mark and Owen got to talking about the Metallica sound and the Mark IIC+. So Mark hooked up his IIC+ and Owen plugged in his EMG-loaded Moser. A couple minutes of tweaking, and those metal riffs were just flying off of Owen's fingers. Cool sound. Now I understand why those amps command top dollar.
OK, I lied. This is the last one... Mary-Suzanne used text messaging to communicate with me through the day. Every now and then I'd get a message on my phone about food, preparations, etc. We have four cats in the house who have varing degrees of sensitivity to strangers and loud music. At one point, I got this message:
"Boogie is hiding on the shelf in the bedroom. Looks a bit put out."