There is something of an urban dictionary of terms that exists among gear heads. Those words uttered in guitar stores or riddling online forums. That pedal that’s “transparent.” The amp with “haunting” mids. That guitar that “chugs.” Such terms can be helpful when used to describe something specific but with overuse, at times, their meaning gets lost. When it comes to amps the terms used most are almost always reflecting something in their EQ shape, which, if most of us are honest (myself included) we know enough about to be dangerous.
This week on TPS, Dan & Mick used one simple term as a departure point to explore the characteristics and responsiveness of different amplifiers. That word is simply “mid” and used to refer to how different amps push or pull back from that frequency range. In the process they dabbled in three different amps from Fender, Vox, and Marshall and tag-teamed them with some essential pedals from Wampler, Fulltone, Catalinbread, Analogman and Ibanez. Half tutorial, half experiment, the task on TPS this week was to hear what the terms “mid-scoop” and “mid-pushed” actually sound like and to find strategies for optimizing them with pedals.
The Short Story on Amp Typologies and EQ Shapes
I’ve always been a one-amp-at-a-time type of guy. Largely out of necessity and economics. This, however, has made it nearly impossible to hear in real-time the differences between amp types. Dan & Mick cued up three loud makers that arguably represent the heart of all modern amplifier typologies. (Thanks gents!) While there are many material and electronic qualities that differentiate these, perhaps what sets them apart most is their EQ shape, particularly in the mid-range.
Off to the left of Mick sat the Fender Super Reverb. Here the term “mid scoop” refers to the way that Fender amps generally dip in the mid-range frequencies. On the far right was the TPS standard fixture, the Marshall Plexi. As with most Marshall’s, this amp’s characteristic is it hefty bottom end. In short, the mids are prominent but they’re sat atop a fat foundation. Sandwiched in between these two was the Vox AC30. That buzzword “chime” in this case refers to the way the Vox accentuates bright upper mid frequencies.
As Dan & Mick played a few rounds through each amp, the MXR 10-Band EQ pedal was tossed into the mix to see if the amps could be made to sound more or less like the others. While it was possible to sculpt and shape the tones of the Fender, Vox, and Marshall with this tool, the result was not simply a transformation into the sounds of the amp nearby. As Mick concluded, this is because an amp’s sound is complex and its EQ is relational to other components and qualities. “Clearly there’s a lot more going on in the sound of your amp than just EQ, because it’s not just EQ, it’s everything else that’s in there.”
This begs the question of if it is possible to accomplish all of that sound using a pedal.
The Misnomer of Amp-In-A-Box or Just Great Pedals?
Since the TPS experiment entailed a throw-down between three classic amps themselves, Dan & Mick ventured further into the test by considering so-called “amp in a box” pedals. In this case, the Wampler Thirty Something (a la AC 30) and the Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret (a la Plexi). Pedals such as these clearly set classic amps in their sights. The aim? To come as close to the classic as possible and package the sound within a stompbox. Instantly awesome and imminently controversial.
As Mick critiqued, the idea of distilling all the complexities of an amp—cabinet materials, speaker choices, gain structure, transformers, pre/power amp, glowing tubes, etc.—into a pedal is a tall order. “You can’t possibly hope to achieve all of that in one of those!” Yet in the name of science, Dan & Mick took to the task of trying to make one amp sound like the other using pedals.
First on the docket, the Dirty Little Secret into the Fender Super Reverb. Does it Plexi? As Mick noted after reconfiguring and tweaking all pedals and amp in the equation, “It’s really hard to make a Fender amp sound like a Marshall using a [Dirty Little Secret].” “Or using anything,” Dan added, “But my favorite sound there was just the Dirty Little Secret straight into the Fender…it doesn’t sound like a Marshall but it’s a great sound.”
Next up, the Wampler Thirty Something into the Fender Super Reverb. In this case, the pedal had a notable Vox-esque vibe imparted to the sound. Yet again, the outcome was not an instant AC-30. But as both TPS anchormen reflected, does that mean the pedals sound bad? Hardly. They have all the ingredients of excellent tone—detailed EQ, complex gain structure, and responsiveness—and make for great pedals.
Whether you’re in the market for an amp, a stompbox, or so-called “amp in a box” head over to Riff City to get your mid-range fix!
TPS Rig Rundown:
Guitars: Fender American Vintage Stratocaster, Fender Custom Shop 1963 Telecaster, Duesenberg Bonneville.
Pedals: D’Addario Pedal Tuner, MXR 10-Band EQ, Analogman Bad Bob Booster, Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, Fulltone OCD, Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret, Wampler Thirty Something, Empress Echo System, Neunaber Immerse.
Amps: Marshall 1987x (50-watt Plexi reissue) through 2061x cab (Celestion G12H Anniversary speakers); 1961 Vox AC30 through 2x12 Celestion Blue speakers; Fender Super Reverb (reissue) with 4x10 Jensen P10R speakers.