I can’t play guitar amplifiers without microphones any more!
Back in January 2019 NAMM I’d heard about the brand new Marshall JCM800 Studio head, but thought nothing of it as I was still in full flow, Kemper-loving heaven. The Kemper had killed my “GAS” for amplifiers successfully for the last 12 months or so, but recently, my passion for amps has bitten me, with a vengeance.
I had a brief flirt with amps back in January 2019, but it didn’t amount to much as ultimately, the amp in question didn’t quite live up to my expectations and the Kemper trumped it in terms of versatility. But returning all the gear I bought didn’t quite kill the urge to go back to amps on permanent basis.
The music shop effect
In 2018, in one of my many briefly lived ‘wobble’ moments, where I question my commitment to digital technology and rethink my dedication to the Kemper fan club…I went to a well known music store in Cardiff to try out a Mesa/Boogie Mark V. What an amp.
Hundreds of amazing recordings have featured this wonderful piece of technology, it’s a work of art on so many levels, and that is true for everything Mesa/Boogie puts out. However. The sales guy sat me down in the silent room at the back of the store and plugged a nice new Gibson Les Paul of my choosing, into the Mark V and then into an Orange cabinet. God knows what speaker was in there, maybe a Vintage 30?
This is as you’d expect and is perfectly reasonable. But I’ve just spent the best part of 18 months listening to nothing but the sound of an amplifier being fed through a cabinet (or two) and then into a microphone or combination of mic’s. Albeit, this is happening in the digital domain, and they’re all digital replications of these vital pieces of the signal chain puzzle.
So it didn’t take me long to realise that I wasn’t getting anywhere with this little experiment.
Firstly, Gibson guitars are almost always out of tune in guitar stores, especially this one. I’ve never tried a Gibson Les Paul that’s not fallen out of tune within seconds, at any guitar store.
Secondly, I was slightly dubious about the internet wisdom everyone has been shelling out about this amp…”it’s hard to dial in”.
Thirdly, my playing is always rubbish in guitar stores, I never know what to play and because it’s not gear or a guitar that I’m used to, I never feel inspired to play anything remotely resembling anything personal or good.
The “amp in the room” sound…
But there’s a fourth reason things weren’t going as planned with the Mark V…
I don’t like the “amp in the room” sound any more.
There. I said it.
Everyone who tries digital (Helix, Axe FX, Kemper etc.) almost always complains about the lack of ‘feels’. The lack of this or the lack of that. What they’re getting at is the “amp in the room” feeling/sensation/sound. Again, this is usually a complaint. I am the opposite of this!
I may be the only person in the world who complains about the ‘amp in the room’ sound, sounding bad!
Luckily for me, I’ve not had much opportunity to play any of my amps at the level they’re meant to be played to get the very best out of them. I say “luckily” because, I’ll never miss it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played them loud and enjoyed every minute of it. But I’ve not spent enough time to get addicted to that sound. I’d do gigs and would always get told to turn down to a reasonable level.
I do know the sound of the amp in the room though and that is addictive. I played for years with an amp in the room. 23 years to be exact. The raw sound of a guitar playing through the internal circuitry of a high end amp, then through the huge speaker, it’s bliss.
But I’ve just spend the last 3 years undoing all that and training my ears to listen to a guitar being played through an amp, cab and microphone, which is a whole different experience…when you’re a guitarist.
I say “when you’re a guitarist” because everyone else who’s not a guitarist, listens to guitars on recordings. A recording of a guitar has the following ingredients: guitar — amp — cabinet /speaker — microphone.
The Marshall JCM 800 I’d always wanted to try
So I put the Mesa Mark V episode behind me, it sounded awful, but that wasn’t the amp, it was the situation and the tools…right?
This week another digital ‘wobble’ ensued and I remembered that Marshall had just remade their JCM800 into a little version and this now intrigued me a lot! I needed to try one as it was always an amp I’d wanted growing up. I thought to myself about the possibility of having this up alongside a Mesa so I could go from crushing metal to 80’s hair rock/metal, Guns N’ Roses with the flick of a switch. (If only there was a green box which looked like a toaster, from Germany, that could do that).
Back to the shop.
Let’s be under no illusions, sales staff are there to sell you gear. They will big it up to be the best thing ever and nothing comes close, so buy it.
This guy gave it the hard sell, he sat me down in the room and said, “we only have the combo”. Okay, this was disappiointing as I’d seen the head as “in stock”, online. But we powered on. I picked a different Les Paul.
Plugged in and…awful.
Why so bad?
Let’s get to the bottom of this. There’s a few things everyone will experience and should be noted before you dismiss the amp of your dreams:
- The guitar — Pick a guitar that stays in tune.
- Volume — This is an issue. Especially with the Marshall JCM 800. Yes, it can go down to 5w, and it sounds cool, but it still needs volume to sound its best. Nobody in that store wants to hear you runining Sweet Child Of Mine in the back room, at stupid volume.
- The sound you associate with the JCM 800 probably has a boost pedal in front of it. I didn’t have one.
- The expectancy of what it should sound like — it won’t.
- The speaker — I later found out that Marshall stuck a bloody 10" speaker in that combo! What!!! Saving grace was that it was at least a ‘V’ Type speaker. I’d say, for my tastes, a 12" speaker would have been critical and Greenback would have been my choice for a Marshall.
- What do you play in a guitar shop? If you’re anything like me, you’re scared to let it happen naturally and end up sounding terrible.
Then there are things that are personal to me and my experience:
- The guitar I wish I could pick a guitar that stays in tune. But the problem is that I use a (tuned) Les Paul at home that stays in tune.
- Volume — Issue is that I care about what people think of me and my playing, so I would never crank it enough to hear the true potential of the amplifier.
- The speaker — As I said above, I’d have liked to have tried it with a 12" speaker in a separate cab (4x12 anyone?!) and Greenbacks would have been great.
- The microphone — there was none. I’ve found that since experimenting with digital recreations of microphones, to get the tones I like, I need a Sure SM57 and a Neumann U87 — yes, the microphone really does make that much of a difference.
Bottom line is, after being spoiled with digital over the last few years, I cannot listen to the raw amp and cab in the room sound any more. Especially with all of the negative factors mentioned above affecting the experiment.
The guitar — amplifier — cabinet/speaker — microphone(s) all add up to the sound I have and enjoy in my head. Without any piece of that chain, things start to sound weird to me.
Ultimately, short of taking my load box and Two Notes Torpedo C.A.B. M with me to the store, when trying out amplifiers, I’m going to need to fork out on the amp first, to see if I like it in my setup.
And that is the moral of this story. Until you can hear it in the setting you’re used to, with the gear you know, use and love on a daily basis, it’s hard to make a judgment on a (probably superb) piece of gear….cough, Mesa/Boogie Mark V!