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Blackstar St James Plugin

Blackstar St James Plugin

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.

A version of Blackstar’s tried and tested CabRig mic plus speaker emulation is included, and adds greatly to the plug‑in’s versatility.A version of Blackstar’s tried and tested CabRig mic plus speaker emulation is included, and adds greatly to the plug‑in’s versatility.

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 tempo‑sync options. There’s also a separate studio‑style analogue EQ emulation that can be applied to the overall output, with four semi‑parametric EQ bands plus low‑cut and high‑cut sections, all with individual band bypass switching.

Two Amps, Six Voices

The amp model has two channels, nominally clean and driven, and the second channel has two switchable voicings so, given the two output‑stage options, it’s almost like having six different amplifiers to hand. In addition to the usual three‑band EQ and separate drive control for the ‘dirty’ channel, there’s also reverb (independent of the post‑amp reverb pedal), and a Sag switch that adds a hint of ‘power supply sag’ compression.

With the 6L6 version of the amp, the clean channel stays pretty much clean all the way up to maximum volume, unless you also max out the master volume, in which case you get a very natural pushed amp sound with just a bit of dirt. The drive channel is also reasonably clean when used at minimum drive settings, so there are none of the unreachable tones that fall into a dead spot between the channels, as there are with some amp modelling plug‑ins I’ve tried. Turn up the drive with the Voice switch up and you get a classic rock kind of crunch that sounds reassuringly solid and punchy without ever becoming flabby. Dial back the drive and you get into blues territory — good for when you just want to add a bit of hair to the sound. Flip the Voice switch down and you get a brighter and more aggressive hard rock sound.

Blackstar St James Plugin

For the EL34 version, the clean sound takes on more of a British character, with a touch of midrange hollowness and just a hint of break‑up if you max out the volume control. This goes further as you turn up the master volume, adding a slightly nasal whine that will please many blues players. Go to the ‘dirt’ channel with the Voice switch up and you get more crunch, but not nearly as much as with the 6L6 model. Used on its own, I’d describe this as more blues than rock, with a really sweet jangle at lower drive settings. However, bring in the drive pedal and there are some wonderfully organic rock tones to be had. The second Voice switch position adds more drive but it’s still nothing like as much as with the 6L6 version of the amp. Again, this plays very nicely with the drive pedal if you need more of a rock sound but with a less ‘thick’ voice than you might get from the 6L6 amp.

There are a few factory presets that show off the scope of the St James plug‑in, with the usual choice of clean, mildly grubby and seriously unwashed sounds, but also some nicely responsive ambient clean settings that show off the effects proving that it’s not just ‘dad rock’ guitar sounds on offer. Of course, you can save your own settings as presets too.

Saints Above

I’ve tried many amp modelling plug‑ins and often find myself trawling through endless models of amplifiers that I’ve never met in real life, teamed with an equally bewildering range of speaker cabinets, effects and settings. (What frequency would you like your mains hum and should the amp be miked up on a Monday or a Wednesday?!) To be fair, some of these work pretty well — but others sound disappointingly thin, or I often find they work well ultra‑clean or ultra‑dirty but don’t have much to give in the middle ground, where you actually need them to work. Blackstar have opted to provide a much more limited choice here, with essentially two amplifiers and just a handful of pedals with a choice of speakers. But here’s the thing — I found myself spending a lot of time just playing and enjoying the sounds, just as I would if plugged into a real amp. The cleans are responsive with just the right feel; they’re not at all sterile or bland. Dial in a bit of hair and again it’s like playing through a real amp, with just the right amount of springiness, a genuine sense of low‑end weight and plenty of detail, but without any nasty, raspy highs.

Having a choice of mics and speaker cabinets adds greatly to the tonal flexibility, whether you’re looking for the sound of a single‑speaker combo, a 2x12 combo or a 4x12 cabinet. CabRig works exceptionally well, yet it’s so simple to use. Pick a cab, pick a mic, decide whether to use it on‑ or off‑axis, then choose your room size and the distance between the two cabs and you’re good to go.

Driven sounds really sing without adding all that unwelcome fizzy grit that so often afflicts the sound of amp plug‑ins.

When it comes to driven sounds, I used both a Strat with single‑coil pickups and a guitar with humbuckers and found that the character of the guitar itself still came through, even with a lot of gain piled on in the plug‑in. Having the two power amp types and the dual voicing options opens up a whole range of blues and rock sounds, especially if you use one of the two drive pedal voices to push the amp a little bit harder, but the organic quality of the clean sounds is also an important factor. There’s a palpable sense of cabinet resonance adding the type of low‑end punch and lower‑mid heft that you normally hear only from physical speaker cabinets. Driven sounds really sing without adding all that unwelcome fizzy grit that so often afflicts the sound of amp plug‑ins. Also, and very importantly, the playing feel and dynamics of the physical amplifier are captured, making the St James plug‑in a pleasure to play through.

One practical operational point worth noting is that if you are working on a laptop‑based system and you sit close to the computer while playing your guitar, you might start thinking that the plug‑in is overly noisy. In fact what you are hearing is not down to the plug‑in — it can happen with any of them — but rather interference from the computer that’s picked up by your guitar pickups and then amplified by whatever drive and gain stages you have in the signal path. The solution is simply to move a couple of metres from the computer after you hit record. The actual noise generated by the plug‑in is comparable with what you’d hear from a well‑sorted valve amp, and the included gate deals very neatly with the normal noise that accompanies high‑gain sounds.

There’s a small but high‑quality range of pre‑ and post‑amp effects.There’s a small but high‑quality range of pre‑ and post‑amp effects.

Foot In The DAW

So far I’ve only touched on the included stompboxes, but they are well worth exploring as their quality is excellent. Putting the compressor before the amplifier helps produce a more even ‘studio’ tone and this compressor has a blend knob for parallel compression as well as a fast/slow response switch. For me, the drive pedal works best at lower drive settings, just helping to push an amp setting that’s already breaking up, but if you prefer the sound of dirty pedals into a clean amp, that works as expected too. Chorus may be an old‑school effect but this one produces just the right amount of shimmery goodness, while the phaser’s two resonance settings allow it to get close to most of the classic phaser sounds. You can’t change the order of the effects, but while some might like to see that feature implemented I found that they generally work fine exactly as they are.

When it comes to the effects positioned after the amplifier, again these do what good stompboxes should do, and the only thing I’d really like to see added is a wow/flutter dial for the delay, to add a bit of vintage tape flavour. As it is, you get saturation and tone controls in addition to the usual time, feedback and mix controls, as well as switching for normal, wide or ping‑pong modes.

A four‑band EQ can be inserted at the end of the signal chain.A four‑band EQ can be inserted at the end of the signal chain.

I found that in most cases I could dial in a perfectly usable sound using relatively little amp EQ and none of the studio EQ, though if you do need EQ to create a specific sound, the separate EQ offers plenty of scope without the complexity of a fully parametric EQ. Each of the four bands has a choice of four switchable frequencies with separate bypass buttons for each band and for the adjustable low‑cut and high‑cut filters.

I’ve tried and acquired plenty of guitar amp emulations over the years, but when recording my own material I’ve still generally fallen back on putting a mic in front of my favourite small combo. Having tried the St James plug‑in, though, I suspect that this will be my first port of call in future. It may offer only two amplifiers, but between them they cover pretty much every clean, hairy and driven character from both sides of the Atlantic — and they do it with great style.


  • Convincing tone and feel.
  • Both power‑amp versions of the St James amps included.
  • CabRig and a selection of effects makes it versatile.


  • None.


By concentrating all their firepower on just two amplifiers and a small selection of effects, Blackstar have managed to come up with an amplifier plug‑in that feels and sounds authentic — yet it still has the range to cover most guitar styles.


$99 including VAT.

Blackstar Amplification +44 (0)1604 817817.