Thomas Blug aims to deliver his perfect amp tones in small and portable packages...
Unable to find anything commercially available that met his own needs, Thomas Blug's aim for the original Amp1 was a rig that would fit in his flight bag but wouldn't compromise his sound. We were highly impressed with the result, as you'll know if you read our review (SOS June 2015: https://sosm.ag/bluguitar-amp-1). Few amps can claim to cover all guitar genres but this one got as close to it as any, with a choice of three 'dirty' amp flavours as well as a nicely responsive clean channel. Over the last year, though, two new versions have been released — the Mercury Edition and, more recently, the Iridium Edition. So let's find out what's changed.
Like the original, the Amp1 Mercury Edition (I'll call it the Amp1 ME) is a pedal-format amp head that combines solid-state analogue circuitry with a miniature nanotube valve driving a Class-D 100W output stage that has been specially designed to interact in an organic way with the speaker load — it emulates the way that a transformer-coupled valve output stage appears to the speaker. The amp still owes a lot to the original design, but it's much improved. All the channels have been fine-tuned, to give a tighter overdrive sound that still retains punch and attack, and offers a range of tone from clean to high-gain rock (with a lot of good stuff in-between) and the reverb algorithm has also been updated.
As you can see from the pics, there is a fan for cooling, but as this only kicks in when the amp is working really hard you're unlikely ever to hear it. The metal stomp-format housing is less than 10 inches wide and includes an underbody channel that allows the amp to sit over a guitar cab's handle. (There's also an optional Easylock accessory — a neat system for magnetically attaching and detaching from a pedalboard.) A sturdy zip-up bag is also included.
As shipped, the Amp1 ME features four channels, switchable between a dedicated clean channel and one of three drive channels. The preferred drive channel is selected via a rotary switch, and then controlled using the drive channel's gain and master volume, whilst the clean channel has its own volume control. The three-band EQ and Reverb controls are shared between clean and drive channels. The EQ isn't like a traditional tone stack: the bands don't interact, and if you turn all three down to zero no signal will pass, and the circuit also changes depending on the selected amp type. So, it's extremely versatile. Finally, a separate Master Volume controls the overall output level from the power amp stage.
Three footswitches along the front of the case can be used for clean/overdrive channel selection, Boost and Reverb, and the boost tonality can be adjusted using one of the trims under the left-hand side of the case. In a second mode, accessed by powering up while holding buttons down, the footswitches select between three user presets, which are stored when the amp is turned off. Other small controls under the case's left edge tweak the volume and tone of the Modern and Classic channels, and adjust the tone of the Clean channel. The amp actually runs two differently voiced tone sections in parallel, and these tweak pots balance how much of the signal goes through each. Switches allow the effects loop to be set up in series or parallel (and set to +4 or -10 dB) and an internal noise gate has two settings (as well as Off).
On the rear is a 100-240 V IEC mains inlet and power switch. A Remote jack not only connects to the optional Remote 1 pedalboard, but can also host an optional MIDI adaptor to hook up external MIDI gear. There are also speaker outputs for both eight and 16Ω speakers, a Record/Phones output with speaker emulation, effects send and return and, of course, an input for your guitar.
This reborn Amp1 sounds like a proper valve amplifier, just as the original did. You can use whatever cabinet you feel works best — we first used the supplied BluGuitar 1x12 NanoCab that Thomas designed for his own use, but also tried Paul's DIY cabinet of a similar size, which housed an old Fane 12-inch driver, and it still sounded great.
For studio work the Amp1 ME sounds perfectly convincing at lower volumes, even without the power-soak option, and in comparison with the original model, the overdrive options were noticeably improved. When Paul tested the original, the Vintage channel was the only one that he really gravitated towards, but now all three drive options seem more usable and responsive, and the Classic is particularly addictive. Modern has a brighter, more edgy 'USA' sound and delivers exactly what you need for those styles of music. Using the EQ feels a little different from a conventional amp's tone stack but the lack of interaction makes it in some ways easier to use once you get used to it. Just be aware that setting them all mid–way can sometimes sound over-bright, and just turning down the treble may not get you where you need to go as a far bit of edge comes through the mid control too. Get your head around this, and dialling in the sound you want is easy.
Even the clean channel feels more springy and responsive, but it's far from sterile; at maximum gain, hotter pickups tease out a lovely sense of compression and harmonic complexity. The Vintage channel is particularly useful for recreating Vox-like tones, but it also cleans up nicely and responds well to a good drive pedal when the gain is dialled back. Classic has more of a Brit Rock sound, again running from almost clean to classic rock. Modern will suit players who gravitate towards a more modern, driven rock sound, but again it's capable of far more subtlety than you might imagine. It's also worth mentioning the reverb, which has a more realistic, spacious character than the original. In fact the only hint of a trick missed is not having incorporated a four-output pedal power supply, which would have simplified a pedalboard setup when using the Amp1 ME's switchable loops.
Anyone who has seen Thomas Blug play will know that he makes his Amp1 sound great with a Strat, but the unit is certainly not voiced exclusively for single-coils. A Les Paul and a Marshall, which the Amp1 is based on, is a classic combination, but there is a lot more subtlety in Marshalls than we often hear, and I find the Amp1 is able to offer some of the same qualities, especially on the Vintage channel. In this edge-of-breakup tone, I’m riding a mix of both pickups, favouring more of the bridge towards the end.
The Mercury Amp1 power amp is set at about 6, in 50-Watt mode, driving a Vintage 30 in a ported cab, miked with a Shure SM57. Amp1 Tones at 5, 5, 5: Gain at 7. Volumes on the guitar are not maxed, but mostly hovering around a touch-sensitive ‘sweet spot’ in the distortion at 6 or 7. I’ve owned and used just about all of the classic Marshalls over the years, and I have to say I’m really surprised at how close the Amp1 can get to some of the feel and flavour of those sounds!
Track © Dave Lockwood/JTCGuitar.com 2020
The very latest addition to Thomas Blug's Amp1 product line-up is the Iridium Edition, which takes it into higher-gain, 'modern metal' territory, with all four channels having been re-voiced to some extent. Whilst the dedicated Clean channel seems to stay cleaner and perhaps a little brighter now, with more headroom, Vintage, Classic and Modern all have more distortion on tap, whilst offering a range of different gain structures. The bottom end is also now tighter throughout, so drop-tunings with distortion don't get too mushy, which brings us to the reason this model exists at all
The modern metal genre has seen tunings go from the widespread use of 'drop-D', on to 'drop-C', and further, right down to 'drop-A', as well as the advent of seven-string guitars, which generally have a low-B string. The circuitry of many tube amps traditionally used with heavy distortion in the metal genre could just about cope with the extra bass inherent in a 'drop-D', but anything lower usually required the use of a pedal like a Tube Screamer to shave off a bit of the low end before it could hit the amp. Very distorted, very low and therefore very bassy is just a recipe for sonic mush, with the amp starting to feel 'slow' like it can't keep up with your picking speed. Even the 'Modern' channel of the Mercury Edition of the Amp1 exhibits these characteristics if you hit it with something in a very low tuning: it is a little too dark and too 'slow' for effective, fast low-tuned riffing. This is what the Modern channel in the Iridium seeks to address — and it does it just perfectly.
Starting with the Iridium's lowest-gain overdrive channel, however, Vintage is the one with the most dynamics, exhibiting a lot of versatility through response to the guitar's volume control, while Classic offers a more driven and overall bigger spectrum. The side-mounted 'tweaker' Tone control for the Classic starts at 'hot-rodded Marshall' and goes upwards in distortion and density from there. This has a tight enough bottom-end to be used as your 'chug' channel, but we preferred it for leads and single-note stuff; the real 'chug star' is the next one up.
The bottom end is now tighter throughout, so drop-tunings with distortion don't get too mushy...
The Modern channel is obviously this unit's signature sound: tight, dense, slightly mid-scooped distortion, with just the right amount of resonant, low-end thump to make palm-muted 'chug' rhythm parts and riffs work as they should. Attack and note definition are retained at massive levels of distortion, and yet you can still make a pinch harmonic sing from almost anywhere on the neck. It will do all that with the channel gain about halfway up, so you've got plenty of leeway to go totally OTT, and that's before you hit it up with the onboard Boost.
Inevitably, given the amount of gain, this is also the noisiest of the three distortion channels, but the integral noise gate has a very neat trick available: with the gate switch in its Metal position and the reverb activated, even if turned down, the Reverb footswitch then switches the gate between its Soft and Metal modes. This might sound trivial, but it works brilliantly in practice. The Metal setting is too fierce for any sort of 'normal' playing, but just right to give you really tight staccato riffs and power-chord hits with a sharp, clean ending. If you are playing a part that moves from one to the other, as most real playing does, then you have an optimum setting available underfoot.
The reverb itself is different in the Iridium Edition, offering a room simulation as opposed to the spring reverb of the original Amp1 and its Mercury follow-up. The reverb is the only digital part of the Amp1 circuitry, being mixed into the output in parallel, with the dry signal path always remaining solely in the analogue domain. Even in mono, the room simulation adds a bit of depth and dimension to the sound, in keeping with the needs of the genre.
Heavy-duty, all-tube amps optimised for metal will often have Resonance and Presence controls in addition to their complement of normal tone controls. Whilst the latter operate on the preamp signal, Resonance and Presence are in the feedback loop of the power amp. In the Amp1 Iridium Edition, the treble and bass controls are configured to also be active within the power amp circuitry, effectively doubling as Presence and Resonance controls. It works fine in practice — if you want some more bass on a heavily distorted signal, you probably want the thump and weight of more speaker/power-amp resonance as much, if not more, than actual audible bass.
The challenge of layered, low-tuned guitars seems to be no problem at all for the Amp1 Iridium Edition, conveying plenty of power, without the ‘mush’ that tracked-up heavy distortion can be so easily descend into.
I’m tuned down to C# in this example, using the Modern channel with the Gain on 5, Boost off and the Metal gate on to keep the endings clean. There’s a double-track left and right, with one up the centre. If this were a supporting part in a busier track, I’d probably take out a little more mids and push them wider.
The quiet section shows that the Iridium Clean channel can stay very ‘sparkle-y clean’, almost a DI sound, and works beautifully with effects such as the ambient swells in the background.
The Iridium Amp1 power amp is about two-thirds volume here, in 50-Watt mode, driving a Vintage 30 in a ported cab, miked with a Shure SM57. Tone controls are set 5, 5, 5, so there’s plenty more push from the Gain, tone controls and the Boost, if you want it, whilst still keeping things tight and controlled at the bottom end.
Track © Dave Lockwood 2020
The direct-recording output of the Amp1 series, which can also be used with headphones, employs an entirely analogue speaker-simulator. The complexity of response achievable with analogue filters, however sophisticated, does not approach the realism of a speaker impulse response, but the Amp1's integral DI sound is certainly usable. It comes to life with a bit more 'feel' if you are able to connect a speaker at the same time, even at low level, as some of the characteristics of the power amp then come into play. The Iridium Edition's master volume that governs the power amp output offers a lot more fine control at lower levels than other models, and only gets into the loud stuff in the second half of its rotation — very helpful for practice or recording at lower levels.
And talking of levels, if you find you are never able to turn up your Amp1 as far as you'd like to, another of the 'hidden' functions on these units, in addition to preset mode, is the ability to boot into 50W mode — just power up whilst holding down the left-hand footswitch and you are there. This allows you to get the Nanotube power amp working a bit harder, and makes the whole thing feel a bit more authentically 'tubey'. You can also now disable the recording output's analogue speaker simulation filters, allowing you to make full use of use other speaker-emulating IR host devices, as well as Thomas Blug's own BluBox IR unit.
This new incarnations of Amp1 make an already excellent design better still. The small form factor and foot-switchable options make them very practical to integrate into a pedalboard, and if you have more sophisticated needs, the optional add-ons are very well thought out. Of course, a convenient form factor means nothing at all in the guitar world if the performance doesn't live up to expectation, but that is very much not the case here. They sound and feel like real valve amps, despite having only one miniature tube on board. The sounds of the Iridium Edition have all been voiced in association with some acclaimed, experienced modern-metal guitar players and make for a very effective 'genre specific' addition to the Amp1 line-up. Partnered with an appropriate speaker, or used for DI recording, these portable powerhouses simply defy the logic of their dimensions! And they're tough enough to stand up to the rigours of a professional tour.
They're not what you'd call 'cheap' in either sense of the word, but given their performance we really can't argue with the price. Sadly the Amp1s can't guarantee that you'll be able to play as wonderfully as Thomas Blug... but that's another story for another time!
Vox offer various amplifiers that, like the Amp1, adopt a hybrid tube/solid-state approach. Although lighter, and thus more portable than conventional tube amps, they're not as compact as the Amp1.
If you need to jump between more than the clean sound and the overdrive channels, the optional Remote1, which connects via a single mono jack cable, adds a lot of capability to the Amp1 ME. Most important is the ability to store multiple presets, though there's also a power soak control and, if you add the optional Looperkit, extra pedal connectivity — this provides four relay-switched loops to add your own pedals to a preset (in series in a fixed order). The Remote1 houses nine programmable footswitches, enabling all your custom amp and pedal setups to be saved in up to four Banks, each holding nine presets. The generous number of footswitches means you have instant access to your nine presets using just a single switch press. A second switchable and adjustable Master Volume can also be set up.
Remote1's MIDI Out can be used to select programmes on external MIDI devices though the optional MIDI1 Adapter enabling players to control Amp1 from any MIDI pedal system even without Remote1. Whenever a new preset is selected using Remote1, a MIDI program change command is sent that can be used to control external MIDI devices such as MIDI effects that might be part of the processing chain. In Preset Mode, the Mode Switch turns blue informing you that you can set up and store your presets. There's an obvious advantage here as you can set up several variations on your favourite channel with perhaps different drive, EQ and reverb settings (and different pedals in the loop), then call these up during performance.
- Authentic valve sound despite these amps' small form factor.
- Plenty of tonal variation.
- Robust enough for touring.
- Good range of accessories.
- Not cheap, especially if you want the accessories as well.
Proof that analogue circuitry can still come out on top in the battle with digital modelling. These amplifiers will be especially useful for musicians who travel by plane or train — which is why Thomas Blug designed them in the first place!