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This article was originally published in issue #31
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Gigging guitar players, especially those flying, have always dreamt of an amplifier that would fit in a gig bag yet sound and feel as good as the beloved amp they have at home. Various amp companies have tried to fit the bill with a bevy of ‘lunchbox’ amps, packing tone and power into a miniature head format, but these are still often too big for taking onto planes or fitting into your gig bag and can often have compromised output levels due to the smaller power stages required. Enter the BluGuitar AMP1 from Thomas Blug. Thomas is a superb guitar player from Germany, with a highly successful playing career and many years of experience aiding amp designers from an electronics and tonal perspective: in fact he had a great deal to do with the design of the amazing Hughes and Kettner Triamp series back in the 1990s.
Thomas has used his extensive knowledge of amp design and the physical and tonal requirements of gigging guitarists to produce a small, floor based amplifier with four channels and an incredible 100 Watt Class-D output stage courtesy of an innovative and highly reliable ‘Nanotube’ power stage. In case you were wondering, 'Nanotube' refers to the use of a genuine tube (or valve if you prefer) in the power amp stage, but instead of a 6l6, or EL34 or similar, it's a very small Russian mil-spec design. The technology is all analogue in its signal path, other than the digital spring-style reverb, with a great sounding and responding solid state front end matched to the Nanotube power section, offering a single clean channel and three discreet overdrive channels, Vintage, Classic and Modern.
Each channel has a shared 3-band EQ with each band isolated from the others to allow precise tonal shaping. The Clean channel features a Volume control and the Overdrive channels have a shared Gain and Master control between them. In addition each of the channels, other than the Vintage, has a secondary Volume and Tone control on the side of the unit offering further control so that you’re not stuck with the same settings for each channel. These controls are very effective at shaping the tone and also allow each channel to be setup for solo boosts if required. An overall Master dial controls the output level for all channels globally and can operate from whisper quiet to a full raging 100 Watts if required from this impressive and inconceivably small power section. Construction is based around a metal head shell.
The AMP1 is also feature rich, especially considering its size and footprint, offering an FX loop that can be switched to series or parallel, speaker simulated REC out and headphones socket, 8 and 16 ohm speaker outs and a full remote suite called the REMOTE 1, operated via midi that adds a whole new level of control to the already impressive functionality, offering up to 36 presets that can recall any of the settings and functions that the AMP1 offers. The REMOTE 1 must be purchased separately of course, but for those requiring even more flexibility it creates a package that is obscenely powerful and flexible for the size. Also included is a superb boost control that can be tailored to give anything from a transparent volume boost to a dirty, character filled addition that will take the Classic or Modern channels into full saturated territory. Thomas has even thought to include a noise gate with ‘OFF, SOFT and METAL’ settings, although we found the unit so quiet that it was never required in the studio. For the travelling guitarist the AMP1 also includes a modern switching power supply that will always deliver the correct voltage to the unit regardless of where you are in world. Finally, an innovative power soak allows power attenuation down to milliwatt levels or for silent recording when a speaker isn’t plugged in without any of the heat buildup associated with this kind of technology (this can only be operated via the REMOTE 1 footswitch).
Three onboard footswitches allow for channel switching, engaging the boost and switching the digital reverb on and off, although it’s worth bearing in mind that, without REMOTE 1, you must select each overdrive channel manually using a four way dial and can only switch from clean to your chosen overdrive channel using the footswitch. Having said that, a separate selectable preset mode allows you to instead use the footswitches to recall three presets which can store any of the channel settings and whether the reverb/boost is on or off.
Plugged into our 4x12 studio cab the first thing to notice about the AMP1 tonally is just how loud this thing can be. The 100 Watt Nanotube kicks out an incredible level of sound pressure and volume and even more impressively sounds great at both quiet and raging volume settings with no loss of dynamics or tonal performance at either end of the spectrum. The clean channel is tubey and responsive just like a vintage style clean tone should be, with plenty of low end thunk and bell like top end. Playing with this channel feels easy and focused without feeling too tight or immediate, meaning that both chordal and lead work cuts through allowing you to play with the amp rather than fighting it. The Vintage channel is pure old school, with breakup tones that are perfect for Strat style position 2 & 4 tones and neck position rhythm sounds.
Using the boost can take things into heavy Blues territory for this highly dynamic and useful channel. For those requiring higher gain sounds the Classic and Modern channels offer huge amounts of gain, especially with the boost engaged at higher settings and whilst both can offer a range of tones from mid-scooped thrash settings to mid heavy, creamy saturated lead tones, they both have a tonal characteristic and response of their own with enough of a difference to justify their inclusion. Both clean up beautifully with the guitar’s volume control and with the gain control set to a medium level each of the four channels can really offer you the diversity of a four channel amp ranging from super clean, edge of breakup, crunch and lead tones with ease. Utilising the custom tone controls on the side allow for even more control taking the channels from one tonal extreme to the other for further diversity and flexibility. The sounds on offer are extremely impressive from the AMP1 and combine beautifully with the lovely spring reverb and effects loop. Direct tones are very good too and offer a great way to record or practice with a supremely portable set-up featuring lots of versatility.
All in all the AMP1 is a bit of a revelation and the closest anyone has come to producing a super portable, floor based device that could actually replace your amp head for both gigging and studio work. It actually WILL fit in your gig bag and is built well enough to last on the road, and when combined with the REMOTE 1 offers an incredible level of versatility and flexibility. On its own though it offers an amazing tonal package that will be very hard to resist for any guitar player who values good tone and is limited for space. For the travelling musician it is a must have and something this reviewer is extremely tempted by!