Blackstar have an enviable track record in building genuine valve amps. Can their first modelling plug‑in maintain those lofty standards?
Regular readers may recall that in SOS September 2022 I reviewed Blackstar’s St James guitar amplifier, the design aim for which was to create a true valve amplifier that was lightweight enough to make it as suitable for use live as it would be in the studio. Blackstar decided to offer up two variants of that amp, one with an EL34 output stage and one with a 6L6 output stage, each with a distinct tonal character. Of course Blackstar’s software engineers also have a lot of experience in coaxing the sound and feel of valve amps out of digital systems, and they’ve put that to good use to create the St James Plugin. This plug‑in (Windows and macOS AU, VST3, AAX and standalone, Apple Silicon supported) includes emulations of both versions of the St James amp, but Blackstar were keen to stress that they didn’t simply set out to model the St James hardware, but also to add further refinements to optimise the plug‑in in order to produce the best results in the DAW environment. They’ve also included some useful onboard stomp‑style effects.
I do appreciate a good‑looking interface that provides useful information — it makes operation very intuitive — and that’s the case here, even down to seeing the actually speaker cabinets that are being modelled. The GUI, which has tabbed pages for Pre‑FX, Amp, CabRig, Post‑FX and EQ, is photorealistic and every page still shows the amplifier control panel along the top. It can also be resized, which is a welcome feature, since at the default size I found the grey‑on‑black amp control legends difficult to read on my high‑DPI laptop screen using my pound‑shop reading glasses! On mentioning this to Blackstar, they mentioned that they’ve already put panel readability on the list for improvements in a forthcoming update.
More important to a plug‑in amp than the graphics, though, is the sound and feel. The EL34 mode of the plug‑in is described as offering “vintage clean to chimey mid‑gain tones” while the 6L6 model runs from “dynamic clean, via classic crunch, to aggressive modern sounds”. An input control adjusts the amount of signal feeding into the virtual amplifier and this is followed by an adjustable gate that’s very effective in keeping noise at bay without making its presence too obtrusive when using high‑gain sounds. The quality of cabinet and miking emulation is also hugely important, and Blackstar already have an established performer in the form of CabRig. The version included in the plug‑in offers a choice of nine Blackstar cabinets and six recording microphones, in addition to a configurable room environment. It’s also possible to set up two miked cabs and to balance and pan these as required. So when you’ve put on your recording engineer’s hat, you have plenty of options to experiment with.
The plug‑in also includes both pre and post stompbox‑style effects. For use before the amp there’s a compressor with a choice of fast or slow response types, drive with switchable TS emulation or overdrive, a stereo chorus with variable width control, and a phaser with two resonance voicings. For use after the amp there’s a flanger, a tremolo, a stereo reverb with plate and hall settings plus a stereo delay, all with options to fine‑tune the sound. For example, the tremolo can emulate both valve bias and harmonic tremolo units, and all but the reverb have...