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Hughes & Kettner StompMan

Guitar Amplifier Pedal By Paul White
Published November 2023

Hughes & Kettner StompMan

The StompMan may look like ‘just another drive pedal’ but actually it’s a fully‑fledged 50W amp head that can fit on a pedalboard. (The 50W rating applies where a 4Ω speaker is being used; 8Ω and 16Ω speakers would limit the power to 25 or 12.5 Watts, respectively). It can also be used for re‑amping guitar parts that have already been recorded or as a power stage for an existing preamp. The ‘amp in a pedal’ idea isn’t new, but Hughes & Kettner have earned an enviable reputation for top‑tier guitar tone over the years so I was keen to see where they’d taken it.

The StompMan’s analogue preamp circuitry feeds a Class‑D output stage, with power coming from an external 24V, 2.5A switch‑mode, laptop‑style power brick. When powered up an orange glow is visible through the slots between the two footswitches. Based on Hughes & Kettner’s Spirit Tone Generator technology, the StompMan is designed to work well with other pedals and includes a serial effects loop on send and return jacks so that effects can also be placed between the preamp and power amp. The send jack also doubles as a line output if needed, and the signal delivered here includes the saturation element of the power stage. There’s no built‑in speaker emulation, but feed a separate speaker emulator device from this line out and you have an effective DI recording source or PA feed.

In addition to a footswitch for bypassing the effects loop (or the preamp section, if that mode is selected using a rear‑panel recessed switch), there’s a Boost footswitch that increases the gain by up to 6dB, as set using the Solo volume knob on the rear. In preamp bypass mode, a trim pot on the bottom of the case allows the gain structure to be adjusted to match the source. Another recessed switch activates auto energy saving mode so that the amplifier puts itself to sleep when unused for more than 90 minutes. It powers back up when a signal is detected.

Hughes & Kettner StompMan

The top‑panel controls have been distilled into Tone, Resonance, Presence and Sagging, in addition to the expected Gain and Master volume controls. Tone isn’t a simple filter but rather moves from a scooped US amp feel at one extreme to a more UK amp character with mid emphasis at the other, offering a neutral sound in the centre. So if you need a softer tone, then backing off the guitar’s tone control achieves that. Sagging emulates the way a valve amp’s power rails drop when the amp is being pushed hard, producing a type of compression and adding harmonics, but here it can be dialled in at any volume. The Gain and Sagging controls work together in shaping overdrive tones, while Resonance adds weight to the bass end by emulating the low damping factor of a typical guitar amp and speaker setup. In practice this endows the low end with a solid sense of authority but without making it sound boomy or woolly — very much like a valve amp, in fact. When bypassing the preamp to use the StompMan’s power amp with a third‑party preamp, the Sagging control remains active for adjusting the power amp character.

There’s enough gain range to serve up both clean and moderately overdriven tones, though using an external drive pedal or separate preamp pedal effectively turns the single‑channel StompMan into a two‑channel amp and allows those players who need more extreme distortion to achieve it using an appropriate pedal.

I was immediately impressed by the StompMan, especially when dialling in those elusive on‑the‑edge blues tones, which it handles exceptionally well.

The StompMan’s on‑paper promise was all borne out in practice. Sonically, I was immediately impressed by the StompMan, especially when dialling in those elusive on‑the‑edge blues tones, which it handles exceptionally well with the right amount of touch responsiveness. At near maximum Gain and three quarters Sagging, my Strat (neck pickup) got very close to the jangly ‘Hey Joe’ Jimi Hendrix sound, with the character of the guitar remaining intact. Backing off the Gain also delivered a solid clean sound with loads of headroom. If you need more overdrive, then hooking up a pedal works just fine.

I did find that, in the last quarter of its travel, the Sagging control caused some noise as the pot was turned, and the background noise of the amp also increases at maximum Sagging settings. However, the control does produce a realistic sense of amp compression and the aforementioned background noise is no worse than you’d hear from a conventional valve amp, and in most cases I got good‑sounding results at lower Sagging settings (so noise wasn’t an issue).

The StompMan’s ability to work well with pedals and to provide a big sound at low volumes makes it a very practical studio amp, as long as you have a decent speaker cab. My tests were done with a small 1x12 cab but this amp can drive anything within its impedance range and, when cranked, it is extremely loud. Having an effects loop is a big bonus, not least because reverb and delay often sound best coming after the preamp distortion, and for re‑amping there’s the choice of going through the whole signal chain or just the power amp stage. And as the power brick has a standard IEC mains socket at one end, it can be left attached to your pedalboard.

In summary, the StompMan makes it easy to achieve very high‑quality guitar sounds with the minimum of effort. It also achieves a satisfying playing feel, which is not always true of other solid‑state designs or modelling solutions. Its feature set makes it equally useful live or in the studio and it is attractively priced. I’m starting to get that levitating credit card feeling!