One Modeling Amp to Rule It All (And It’s Not Even an Amp)
Disclaimer, I’m not a proper musician. Just looking for a guitar setup that’s clean, portable, versatile and sounds good for playing for fun at home.
Also check part 2 of the story where I de-noised and added a quantizing looper+drums to the portable rig.
And after a few iteration, I’ve landed on a product category that I suspect probably doesn’t get as much attention as they should: guitar multi-effect processor pedals. In my case, I traded away my Yamaha THR10, my Marshall CODE, my Line 6 Sonic Port VX interface and associated iPhone software amps and all the footswitches and pedals for a BOSS GT-1.
Of course it doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone’s needs. And while there are mountains of resources and reviews online from the perspective of professional musicians who have criteria related to practicing with a band and gigging, I suspect there must also be dozens of us who just want to play for self enjoyment at home and who value things like:
- Ease of use and quick pick-up-and-play
- Portability, both at home, being able to play in any room, and being able to take it with you to hotels, to the beach etc.
- Doesn’t take up too much room
- Versatility (which goes back to portability if one box can replace a whole bunch of gear without compromising on usability)
- Good sound of course (which big players like Marshall and Fender surprisingly fumbled at least for now)
- And a hobbyist price for the package
And for whom having the power and size to gig is probably a con rather than a pro. And the BOSS GT-1 does surprisingly well on all those fronts.
In function, it’s similar in every way to a ‘feature rich’ modeling amp with built-in effects such as Fender Mustang GT or Marshall CODE (as opposed to simpler modeling amps like BOSS Katana or Line 6 Spider IV).
Except that 1, you’re likely to buy a 80$ footswitch to quickly go through your setlist of presets or toggle effects anyway if you bought a modeling amp and in this case, the GT-1 is a pedal board, with the size of a pedal board. And a 200$ one too, with the amp in it.
And 2, it’s every bit like a modeling amp with a footswitch but without a cabinet with a speaker in it (and an actual power amplifier to drive any speakers). It can both be a pro or a con. In my case, it means I don’t have to stay attached to a wall outlet to play (more on battery operations later) and flat response powered speakers (the GT-1 does the guitar pre-amp and cabinet and speaker emulation) are the commodity that’s likely already all around in your home. I can use my computer speakers if I play near it, I can use my in-ceiling speakers with my 125W home theatre receiver in the living room, I can use my portable speakers like the Marshall Kilburn, I can use the TV soundbar in the bedroom, I can just use my headphones, or I can use any studio monitors or PA systems if I need to play loud for any reasons. And all of those speakers we already have lying around the house are already likely worth more than the cost of a Celestion speaker in any alternative modeling combo amps and have no reasons to perform any worse. It would be a shame to not use them and get yet another speaker in the combo amp.
For the use intents described above, I will compare the GT-1 with a number of alternatives:
- A conventional tube or transistor amp with a bunch of effect pedals
- A modeling amp with built-in effects and a footswitch
- An instrument interface with a laptop or smartphone and modeling software
Though 1 is more or less a non starter because it’s bulky, not portable, expensive and only performs well at a high enough volume.
I suspect it’s also partially due to the fact that Marshall and Fender are having a bit of an identity crisis at the moment with the industry fluctuations on the profitability of selling guitar gears. Marshall and Fender are simply trying to figure out whether they want to be a guitar company or, with both companies trying to dive into the mainstream bluetooth speakers market, a consumer electronics company.
Either way, digital modeling amps aren’t their deep dive. Marshall CODE seems to be more or less a Marshall box for the Swedish Softube software and seem so little invested in the product that despite their master volume button not really working on the device, they did very little about it for 8 months, effectively abandoning their product.
By contrast, sound synthesis is at the core of Roland’s and its guitar division, BOSS’s, DNA. From the classic TR-808 drum machine to today’s digital piano, keyboard synthesizers and guitar processors, sound modeling is Roland. BOSS shipped their first COSM powered product in 1995, a full 2 decades before the CODE series and one and a half before the Mustang series. Artists and industry recognize Roland’s supremacy in new technology as well.
To my hobbyist ears, the GT-1 sounds a lot more nuanced and dynamically responsive in the way how the overdrive breaks up depending on how you pick whereas the Marshall CODE’s clean tones sound a bit dry and distortions too compressed in the dynamic range. So much so that turning the volume knob on your guitar doesn’t actually do anything to the amp output. The Yamaha THR10 sounds better but is a bit inflexible in not being able to separately tweak the distortion effect from the pre-amp gain. Its 2 x 8" speakers aren’t ideal either.
In terms of sound, the GT-1 feels the closest to my Marshall DSL5C, an all tube amp. But the BOSS is more convenient since even at the ‘low-power’ 1W mode, the DSL5C needs to be driven rather loud to get to the overdrive range whereas the GT-1 can do it at any volume.
Another big plus. Being this portable, whatever setup I set on the processor is the one that I end up using in the living room, in the bedroom, when I go outside whereas if I switched between a combo amp in the living room and some other portable solution like an interface and an iPhone software amp, I’d have to keep dealing with different presets and interfaces.
Using a laptop/smartphone software amp is a pain too. Mainly because they’re general purpose devices so they’re never in a ready to plug-and-play mode. Before each session, you’ll have to go through cabling hell to get your interface connected and your software loaded. Being a bunch of stuff strung together with cables rather than a single solid unit makes the whole setup fragile too.
The UI is also above par. Every pedal and knob are customizable but also have sensible defaults for immediate plug-and-play. The rightmost CTL1 pedal is generally for toggling between normal and solo/more effects modes. Everything else is self-explanatory.
Every effect category having their own toggle button besides the main pedals is enormously useful. The Fender Mustang GT doesn’t have any of that and Marshall CODE has effects toggle, but doesn’t have one for overdrive/distortion for some reason.
The screen sits somewhere between Marshall and Fender. The Marshall LCD is absolutely horrid. It’s not even long enough to show its presets’ names without waiting for it to scroll much less any other information for the CODE 25 and the CODE 50 is already too bulky. The GT-1’s screen is clear and responsive but the Fender GT screen is higher in resolution and shows the current knob states of the amp which is better.
And finally, of course none of the other alternatives have a wah pedal built-in in case it’s useful for your play style. Otherwise, it defaults as a master volume control which is fairly useful too.
Like most physical products that comes with a companion app, the apps suck. So it’s a non-factor for the CODE and Mustang GT. The plugs in the back are mostly the same. They all have aux in, headphones out. It would have been nice if the GT-1 had both a standard line out and an effect return loop in and out so effects can be placed both in front and behind the pre-amp when using the GT-1 purely as a multi-effect board with a tube amp. But BOSS mostly likely couldn’t have with the size of the GT-1.
A major disadvantage of the GT-1 however is that it doesn’t have any bluetooth connectivity. So vs Marshall and Fender, it takes one more cable if you wanted to play along with music from your phone. While guitar amps aren’t great playing back non-guitar sounds, it’s a nice convenience nevertheless and would have been more useful on the GT-1 than the other guitars since it would have been played on an external flat response speaker.
BOSS mostly likely built the GT-1 by stripping down the GT-100 from 2012 into a smaller size factor without adding any extra functionalities but for a device from 2016 when bluetooth chips cost a buck fifty, it’s a bit disappointing.
As mentioned before, the unit is fully portable and battery powered with 4 AA batteries. While I was initially disappointed that it wasn’t built-in with a lithium battery, it did remind me that rechargeable AA batteries are still a thing and likely easier than a built-in battery since I can have extra pairs and swap them faster.
Though I ended up going a step further since I also wanted to power extra stuff with it. Since this pedal does everything, I don’t actually need other effect pedals. But it doesn’t have a drum machine. Totally an extravagant extra but beats practicing with a metronome. So I put the whole thing on a pedal board platform and added a BeatBuddy Mini, a great drum pattern player that lets you dynamically add fills and chorus transitions live. For extra convenience and even more portability, I also added another Line 6 Relay G10 wireless system (not in the picture) for ultimate freedom. The only remaining cable needed is from the processor to a speaker.
To one-up even on the reasonably convenient 7 hours per charge AA batteries, I powered the whole thing with a portable battery pack so I can keep the convenience of bringing swappable power to the board instead of bringing the board to a power outlet every few hours.
Rechargeable 9v battery packs isn’t really a product category though. But standard 3.7v USB power banks are absolutely commoditized with monster capacities in ever smaller formats. The Line 6 G10 takes a micro-USB for power anyway.
To power the 9v GT-1 and the BeatBuddy Mini though, I used a USB step-up voltage converter such as the one in the image opposite.
It produces 9v to a 5.5mm standard pedal power plug. But the polarity is reversed so a small plug polarity reversing adapter is needed.
Finally the correct polarity plug is brought to all the pedals using a daisy chain cable such as one opposite.
(None are referral link. They just happen to be decent products I found.)
Then, the whole thing is hidden under the pedal board so none of the cabling is visible. I used a Gator Aluminium Small board but it doesn’t really matter.
The battery is an Anker 5000mAh PowerCore Fusion battery pack. It doesn’t have the best volume/capacity ratio but with a built-in wall plug, it’s extremely convenient. I can keep this charged in a wall outlet and bring it to the board and connect it when I want to play. It also supports passthrough so the board can still be powered on a wall outlet if the battery is out.
The multi-effects processor is definitely an overlooked product category when shopping for a versatile all-in-one guitar amplifier. In the case of the BOSS GT-1, it sounds better than most other all-in-one alternatives, costs less than an equivalent modeling amp + footswitch and is a fraction of its size.
Because of the portability, it’s the same setup you’ll play on regardless of where you are. I explicitly omitted gigging but it’s absolutely giggable as well. You won’t have to lug an amplifier or need to mic it at the venue. The stereo GT-1 can be hooked directly into the mixer.
It’s a worthwhile consideration for both beginners with its low cost and great tones right out of the box and advanced users with its uncomparable portability and top class customizability.