Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tube Snob

I'm not a tube snob. I think some solid state amps sound great for harp, but I also know that most of 'em sound wretched. All in all, old tube amps sound best. If you are trying to emulate the old tone from the 40s and 50s, it makes sense to use gear whose design dates to that era.

A few years ago I was looking around for a solid state amp for blues harp. I wanted something lighter and smaller, yet louder than the Fender amps I was using at the time. I had been fooling with some signal processors like the Line 6 POD XT Pro and I got some settings that sounded pretty damn good. In fact, a couple songs on my band's first CD were recorded that way.

So I looked around for a good compact solid state amp with modeling and settled first on a Roland Cube 30 I got cheap on eBay. I liked the tone I was getting, but the amp did not have enough balls for gigging.

I ended up with the Roland's bigger brother, the Cube 60. What a great amp! It had superb sound, lots of cool effects and amp models, and it was extremely durable and reliable. As with the Cube 30, its harp tone using the usual bullet mics was hard to take... shrill and prone to feedback. But here is the secret: When I tried the Harmonica Honker mic with it, I immediately knew I had hit the bulls eye.

The Honker is a small ring mic that fits on your pinkie, incorporating a tiny electret condenser microphone. A cable leads from the ring to a belt pack that serves as power supply and distortion unit. You can dial in as much or as little crunch as you like, from clean to filthy.

I'd had the Honker for a while and tried it with my tube amps but never really liked it. But through the Cube 60 with the amp set on the Black Face emulation, the tone was nearly perfect. I say "nearly..." It is NOT the same as a good bullet mic into a saggy tube amp, but it sounds very, very good. When I was first trying the Cube 60 and Honker mic, the guitar player from my band walked into our rehearsal studio and said, "Dude! You found your TONE!" But he is only a guitar player, so what the fuck does he know?

The point is, the tone was good enough to impress a guy who played blues every night and had heard his share of harp rigs. You know that 99.99 percent of your audience doesn't know a tube amp from Shinola, so why do we go to all the trouble to buy and maintain expensive, tempermental vintage gear?

We do it for ourselves, baby, and for the other harp guys. That last .01 percent of your tone is the shite.


Unknown said...

Hi Rick, I've been using a 2x10 Fat Dog with a white label CR for gigging, but I'm not getting the volume I need. Do you think a Cube 60 would sound as good with a Shure 545 as it does with the harmonica honker?

Rick Davis said...

Hi Josh-

The Roland Cube 60 with a Shure 545 *MIGHT* sound good, but a Fat Dog harp amp definitely sounds good. If the problem is volume I suggest you do what I do: use a line out or DI.

I gig with an 8-watt tube amp, a custom 5F2H from Mission Amps. By itself it isn't loud enough for any gig, so I use its line out feature to run it into the PA. If your Fat Dog does not have a line out, I recommend the H&K Red Box DI, which I reviewed here:

Hughes & Kettner Red Box Pro

If a PA is not available, you can consider getting a small keyboard amp (basically a self-contained PA) and run your tone into that for some volume support.

The Roland Cube 60 is a cool amp, but the Fat Dog is a pure harp amp with great tone. I'd seek a solution with the Fat Dog before spending the bucks on a solid state amp.

Unknown said...

Hi Rick,

Good comment, and I agree. We have our own PA, but I've been avoiding going through it. The Fat Dog doesn't have a line out. It's a stereo amp, so there's essentially one amp for each speaker. Any idea how I would tap this to use a Red Box? I also have a Kalamazoo Model 1 which I use for rehearsal, and I've put a speaker tap line out on that. Would there be an advantage to using a Red Box in this case, or just go direct to the PA?

Unknown said...

I have the smallest Fat Dog, the 1A. If I need more volume I mike it through the PA. The guy that builds these says they lose something with the direct out. It is so easy to mic something, why use anything else? The sound I get from this thing is crazy, thrilling, actually. Love it. I use a vintage Shure 545 with the slick body mods done by blowsmeaway. Insane sound - fat dog indeed, baby.