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This article was originally published in issue #10
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Low power exotic tube combos may be flavour of the month - but nothing beats a stack when you're looking to make a big impression.Michael Casswellsets out to see if he can do just that with Blackstar's mighty Series One 1046L6.
It's always good to get to grips with a Blackstar product and I've been waiting for this one for a while, being a player and user of mostly 6L6 loaded amps. In case you are not sure what I mean by the term 6L6, I refer to my favourite sounding output valve. I do own some EL34 tube amps, but for sheer size and weight of sound, a 6L6 powered amp does it for me. I have found that you really start to hear the difference at stage volumes. When things get a little louder, the British sounding EL34 amp seems to get squashier as you turn up the volume, rather than louder, whereas, a US 6L6 loaded amp will get louder and louder, and still retain definition and clarity. It will also sound huge, and for me, huge is good! I generalize, but in my experience, that's usually how it goes down. I also tend to make full use of effects loops, so a little definition and clarity is exactly what you want when using delays and reverbs.
I did try the original Blackstar Series One which uses EL34's and it's a good sounding amp. It has that British grind that you associate with classic Rock, and I am sure for most players, it's just what the doctor ordered, but for me, it lacked a little of that low-end 'thump' that I look for. I knew it was just down to my preference in output tubes, so I was keen to check out this 6L6 version!
In my time I have used the original Peavey 5150, Soldano, Boogie, Rivera and Fender amps, and I'm currently running a couple of early '90s 6L6 loaded Marshalls, so I sort of know the qualities that make a good musical amp, rather than something that is loud, but a bit characterless. This amp is certainly loud, and a lot of the character will come from you as a player and your guitar choice. I chose my 2006 custom shop Beck Strat, loaded with Fender noiseless pickups (not as good as the old Lace Sensors) for the review, and the Blackstar certainly did kick out some great characterful tones.
Channel 1 is supposed to give a Marshall Plexi-type clean, and this and Channel 2 have a little push switch to give an option on the sound. The push switch boosted the top and bottom on Channel 1, and warmed it up nicely, but to me it was a little lifeless by itself. Kicking in a few pedals soon made this channel sing and zing. A compressor worked perfectly with this channel for some great splangs and chimes and a Fulltone Fulldrive 2, delivered a lovely traditional Blues tone. This is pretty much exactly what I want from a clean channel, because those in the know will either use a little compression, or a good loud pedal, to get the best from any clean channel on any amp.
Channel 2 is a good crunch channel. It's nice for chord work and dynamic playing via your guitar volume pot. Push the little button in, and you get more gain, which thickens the mids. Again, you can push this channel by kicking in a comp or overdrive, which I did, and it gave great response from the amp, giving bags of sustain and tone, whilst keeping the character of my Strat.
Channels 3 and 4 are the full-on drive channels. Channel 4 takes over where Channel 3 leaves off and both gave a thick, fat tone, which kept the definition at the front of the note. When it comes to saturation, you need to hear the pick attack and the front of the note, and all was good on both these channels. If you were going to use pedals in front of either, it would only be to manipulate and massage the sound. You wouldn't need more gain, but by backing the gain down on the amp, and pushing the channel with some choice stomp boxes, a whole new world opens up if you are chasing a sound in your head. In effect you have four channels, but two of those channels you can also tweak with those little push buttons. You get the footswitch to take you through the four channels.
I'm glad the amp has a series effects loop, because I use volume and expression pedals live, and to do this, I need a series loop. Just for fun, I stuck a cheap Boss reverb in the loop and left it on for the whole demo. Reverb is best when it's felt rather than heard, and I think it added to the overall vibe well. There's the usual +4/-10 level setting to accommodate for most units, and it all was just how I want it.
Added to all this, you also get a great speaker emulated output, MIDI switching, a resonance control, dynamic power reduction (DPR), and two 'Infinite Shape Feature' pots (ISF), which basically means you can take it anywhere from 100watts down to 10watts, or make sound a little more 'British' or 'American', as Blackstar puts it.
For me, personally, Blackstar has really got it right this time. As the range has grown they've produced an amp for just about everyone and it seems they have finally made the perfect amp for me. If you were someone who wasn't quite sure about the EL34 powered version, try this. It's excellent. I may have to buy one.