Dave Lockwood tests this hi‑tech guitar system which seeks to replicate the sound of many of the most coveted vintage and modern amplifiers on the market, with full digital multi‑effects thrown in, and all in a convenient, portable, combo format.
For a guitar amp to make it into the pages of Sound On Sound, it has to have something special to offer in the area of technical innovation, and also has to incorporate the speaker emulation circuitry necessary for DI recording. The Millennium One Fifty from the Johnson Amplification division of Digitech scores on both counts, utilising a hybrid configuration of an analogue (both valve and solid state) preamp with digital filtering (for amplifier 'modelling'), and a stereo digital effects stage, followed by a solid‑state stereo power amplifier. The whole package is housed in something resembling the traditional guitar combo format, with two 12‑inch speakers, and is designed to integrate all the power and flexibility of a sophisticated rack system into the convenience of a portable 'single‑box solution'. Despite the inevitable complexity of the resulting system, every effort seems to have been made to keep the Millennium as conventional as possible for the guitarist used to more traditional rigs. Yes, of course there is an LCD screen and lots of pages to scroll through, should you so desire, but the Millennium does not require you to. You can, if you wish, use the thing more or less like a normal amp, driving everything from the front‑panel knobs. Of course, this would waste an awful lot of the power and functionality of the Millennium, but it could be a good place to start for the truly technophobic guitarist who wants to dip a toe in the water before being obliged to dive all the way in.
The two speakers are fed by separate, solid‑state power amps (2 x 75W) allowing true stereo effects without the need for an external cabinet, whilst the preamp features two 12AX7 valves, as well as a solid‑state gain stage which can be used in parallel with the valve stage. The analogue signal is converted at 20‑bit (128 x oversampled) resolution for the effects stage, while a 24‑bit internal data path (48‑bit with the DSP co‑processor) ensures that the signal is not significantly degraded during processing. Up to four digital effects can be accessed simultaneously and all effects and amplifier parameters are available for real‑time MIDI control. Parameters may also be assigned to dynamic (signal level‑dependent) control, allowing some highly expressive, yet intuitive possibilities, such as chorusing on your clean sound which automatically disappears when you turn up your guitar volume to take a solo, or stereo echoes which do precisely the reverse, keeping your clean sound rhythmically uncluttered, but sliding themselves in behind your lead lines. These are very musically powerful effects which would go entirely unappreciated if they weren't easy to program. Fortunately, like the Millennium's external MIDI control assignments, they are every bit as easy to drive as the rest of the amp. A further attraction for some potential purchasers might be found in the fact that, as a software‑driven system, the Millennium is software updatable (both patches and the operating system) via the MIDI port — indeed, some of the points I raised with the company at the start of the review were fixed before the end of it with a new software version. Both impressive and comforting if you have invested faith and money in a system of this type.
The front panel sports two banks of five rotary controls arrayed on either side of the Master Volume and Contour knobs in the centre of the front panel. The latter provides a useful overall tonal tweak to the power amp — a bit of extra brightness to the right of centre, more neutral to the left. A pair of input jacks, one Bright (and, as always, with a tad more gain), one Normal, will hold no mysteries, but the Input Level pot is the first departure from regular practice. This is simply for optimal matching to the following stages, the intention being to avoid illuminating the accompanying Clip LED except on the heaviest of power chords. About two‑thirds up seems to match a stock Strat, whilst a Les Paul is happier at just under halfway and anything with active pickups probably ought to go in the less sensitive input. Clipping this stage only increases your chances of generating some digital crunching further down the chain and is neither useful nor nice sounding. Having matched the input sensitivity to your guitar's output, the next five controls — Gain, Treble, Mid, Bass, Level — seem comfortingly familiar, and operate just as any guitarist from the latter part of this century would expect. To facilitate the Johnson's ability to reset itself totally for each preset, the pots are actually 'rotary shaft encoders' (ie. pots without end‑stops) with accompanying two‑digit numeric displays to represent the control's 'position' or value. The displays are clean, and actually easier to read on a darkened stage than a conventional knob pointer.
...the Johnson Millennium scores very heavily in the key areas of sound, flexibility and ease of use.
The next challenge is a bank of six switches. Five of these are used to determine what amp the Millennium is pretending to be. The emulations are sensibly divided into family groups, with the choices accessed by successive presses of the switch. Thus, under 'American Combo' we find a mouth‑watering choice of '65 Black Face Twin, Twin Reverb Brite, Matchless DC‑30 (1), Matchless DC‑30 (2), Boogie Mark II Combo, and a Boogie Rectifier Combo. From that, you'll probably have a pretty good idea what you might find under 'British Stack', 'American Stack' and 'British Combo', but perhaps rather less as to what to expect under 'Johnson'. The Johnson type differs from the others in not 'modelling' specific amplifiers — many of the Johnson‑based presets in fact incorporate two different amp models running side by side to produce a more complex, composite tone, as well as offering generic sounds like 'Overdrive' and 'Fuzz'. Some of the Millennium's most impressive sounds are to be found in this group, and I particularly enjoyed being able to 'morph', or crossfade between two significantly different amp sounds using an expression pedal.
There are 36 'models' in all, with two distinct characters for each, portrayed as Channel A and B variants of each amp. These A and B versions are allegedly derived from modelling the real characteristics of those amps which do actually have two distinct channels, with 'clean' and 'dirty' versions of the same amp sufficing for those that don't.
The Millennium organises its sounds into presets — 100 Factory (few of which you will ever want to use straight out of the box, I would contend, but very useful as starting points), and a bank of 100 User memories for storing your own creations. A Millennium preset consists of the selected amplifier and all its associated effects settings and controller assignments. The right‑hand side of the front panel is devoted primarily to the effects section. The range of effects on offer here is about as comprehensive as a very superior, dedicated multi‑effects unit. The key to the Millennium's success, however, may well lie in how efficiently the non‑technical user can tap in to that power, and here I think the designers have done a particularly good job. As with the amplifier section, five rotary controls, designated Mix (overall wet versus dry), Speed (of modulation effect — chorus, tremolo etc), Depth (of modulation effect), Delay (level), Reverb (level), give you instant access to the primary parameters of any effects that are active within the preset. This allows you to always achieve an instant remedial tweak in a live situation, and indeed to drive the Millennium very effectively long before you have learned how it really works. This is important. Guitarists like to think they understand amps, and there is nothing like being able to achieve the basics on first meeting for giving you the confidence to want to explore further. Deeper editing of the effects can be achieved with equal simplicity via a bank of switches dedicated to giving you instant access to the first edit page of each of the main effect groups. It works beautifully and avoids any sense of having to dig around in the depths of the operating system looking for the bit you want to edit.
As soon as you have altered a parameter within a preset, the Store light illuminates in an unmissable red, prompting you to save the change — something which is easily achieved by pressing the Store button three times. Why three? Once to give you a chance to edit the name, once to choose the memory location, and one to confirm. Of course, if you are tweaking a preset without changing the name or memory location, which is what happens most of the time, you quickly end up hitting Store rapidly three times in succession without even looking, as soon as you have done anything you want to keep.
The large, backlit LCD normally shows you the preset number and name, along with a neat block diagram of the elements used and their relative positions in the signal chain. Every preset starts with the option of an analogue wah pedal. To use it in the conventional manner obviously requires the presence of a MIDI control pedal, but you can, of course, choose to just use it as a static band‑pass filter to replicate the classic 'half‑cocked wah' sound beloved of certain rock players. Whilst nothing but the real thing seems able to truly offer the complex resonance of a Cry Baby into a Marshall, the Millennium's 'virtual wah' is a great deal better than most and I could certainly live with it.
The Wah feeds the amp simulator stage, which is followed by a Noise Gate (Silencer I and II, offering a choice of position in the chain), with adjustable Threshold, Attenuation, Attack and Release. An external send/return loop (at ‑10dBu, a bit hot for most guitar pedals, which are quite likely to be the one thing you'd want to put in here) completes the analogue part of the signal chain.
The Millennium's digital effects can be deployed in any one of 15 different configurations, allowing for just about every possible combination of series, parallel, mono, dual‑mono and stereo. The full list of 'digital modules' incorporates several different versions of most types of effect, allowing the available processing power to be divided up in the most appropriate way for each preset. Thus, if you were setting up an effect consisting mainly of chorusing, but you wanted to add just a little bit of low‑level delay as well, you could still use the Millennium's delicious, but very processor‑hungry 'Octal Chorus", which uses three quarters of the total processing available, at the same time as a stripped‑down, basic delay program which only needs a quarter. The operating system will only show you a listing of those effects that will fit in the 'slot' you are editing, which forces you to choose the configuration before you know precisely what effects you want to fill it with. This is OK when you are working with the manual, as I obviously was at the start of the review period, but is not so good without it — I sometimes might have chosen a different configuration if I had known which other effects modules it would have made available. The alternative, an operating system which automatically spreads the available power across whatever effects you have selected, is probably easier to work with, but would, of course, prevent you from making exactly the kind of priority choice in the earlier example. Overall, I think the designers have succeeded in rendering the complex task of organising such a flexible and sophisticated system relatively painless. Included within the digital effects is quite a decent stereo compressor, which can be used to keep levels constant for recording or give the amp a bit more 'feel' at low volume without changing the sound — a compressor at the front‑end for deliberate 'squeeze' effects is perhaps the only significant absentee from the regular palette of sounds. One thing you do have to bear in mind when using significant amounts of reverb and delay is that there is no effects 'spillover' when you change patches, making transitions sound rather abrupt unless carefully timed.
In common with most 'processor amps', your initial response to the Millennium may well be determined by the volume level at which you get to try it out. At 'domestic' levels, some of the presets are very impressive indeed. At stage levels, however, those same presets can seem excessively ambient and frequently far too distorted as well. This is an inherent problem with this type of amp — the compression, distortion and EQ that you select in order to sound like a loud amp being driven close to its limit does not translate particularly well to actually being loud! For example, Factory Preset 1, 'Rectifier Solo', sounds simply awesome when you sit in front of it 'noodling about' (guitarists will know what I mean), but tends to simply disappear when used alongside a real bass player and drummer. It's not that the Millennium can't go loud enough, for it can be screamingly loud (particularly on the Boogie/Soldano‑type presets) but as a consequence of the way that heavy distortion inherently deprives the signal of dynamics and the way the artificial ambience combines with the real room ambience to push your sound into an imaginary distance. Winding down the delays and reverbs to less than a quarter of the programmed value in many instances, knocking back the amp models' front‑end gain (not the input matching sensitivity) and trimming a bit off both the top and bottom to compensate for the ear's greater sensitivity to these frequencies at high levels produced something far more pleasing, much more convincing and indeed, far more usable in a band context.
I did find, however, that there was a significant disparity in level between some of the presets, depending on the amplifier model used. If the 'amp model' output level is already at maximum, the only way to balance the presets against each other is by trimming the level of the louder ones. Where this is done to a preset that has already had its front end turned down, the overall output volume can start to become a problem. The Millennium may have two 75‑Watt power amps on board, but they will only be driving about half of that into each of the internal 8 Ohm Celestion speakers. With those presets that I had already tweaked for level matching and to get rid of excessive distortion, I found the overall volume control creeping up towards maximum without giving me the same kick that I have come to expect of my normal valve combo (Mark III Boogie). Sixty‑odd Watts into two twelve‑inch speakers ought to be loud enough to keep up with a bass combo and un‑miked kit, so the real answer to maximising the performance of this amp in a live context relies on the manufacturer addressing the limited volume of the quieter presets.
Amplifier systems which generate all their distortion at the preamp stage are inherently more noisy than those which achieve a significant amount of it within the power amp. The Johnson falls into the former group, and you probably will want to use the noise gate if you are playing at reasonable volume, using distortion and a few effects at once (the effects themselves are not noisy at all, but they do amplify the preamp noise). I found both gate types a little unsubtle and would have preferred a dynamic filter process which left some noise, but crucially some signal still present, whilst removing the most intrusive hiss component. For recording, I preferred to leave the gate out altogether, deferring the choice of anti‑noise strategy until mixdown and making sure that decaying notes were never prematurely chopped off.
For the majority of Sound On Sound readers, the DI recording outputs will be among the most important features of the Millennium. Digitech's speaker emulation will be well known to many guitarists from products like the 2112 processor, and performs as well as most, with the added advantage that all the additional processing that is always necessary to achieve something reasonably convincing is right there within the system. The function, which operates only on the balanced XLR DI/Line Outputs, may be switched in and out, either globally or on an individual preset basis — it perhaps is worth taking it out for anything completely clean and sparkling, or if you happen to like distorted sounds that will drill holes in your teeth, otherwise, personally, I'd leave it in all the time.
The quality of the effects is quite excellent...
The nominally +4dBu, DI output level is actually determined by the Master Volume control setting. For recording, where you probably only want to hear the sound via the control room monitors, the manual recommends that you disconnect the internal speakers. This is perfectly OK, of course, for a solid‑state power amp, but it's not exactly elegant, and I am sure that some less technical users brought up on valve amps will not be all that comfortable doing it! Frankly, on a system of this sophistication, I can't see why the designer chose not to have a separate recording output level control. Its absence is even more of a limitation in a live situation where you are effectively using the internal speakers just as a local monitor while your PA feed is taken from the DI, for it is impossible to vary your monitoring level without affecting the FOfeed. I appreciate that that's exactly what happens with a miked‑up speaker, but why emulate a limitation when it would have been quite simple to improve on it?
For recording, just as for live use, many of the Millennium presets are far too ambient to be used without editing. The obvious 'quick fix' approach of tweaking the overall wet/dry mix, however, actually varies the balance of the analogue (front‑end and amp simulation) and digital (effects) stages, which means that the chorus and pitch‑shifter will disappear along with the reverb. The 'analogue/digital balance' control configuration confers the advantage of allowing you to set up a basic 'dry' amp sound and then add processes to it, but chorusing and pitch‑shifting become an integral part of any sound on which they are used and once the required balance is achieved, you will not want to vary it. The facility to be able to quickly balance the dry sound, including any modulation or pitch‑shifting effects, against the reverb/delays would, though far more complex to implement, be infinitely more useful, both on stage (to compensate for varying acoustics) and in the studio (allowing a quick re‑balance of just those effects you would probably prefer to leave until the mixing stage).
The quality of the effects is quite excellent and on a par with anything else that it might make sense to use within a guitar rig. The only one I couldn't come to terms with at all was the rather bizarre spring simulation. Mechanical spring reverb, for all its limitations, is particularly suited to certain clean guitar sounds and still well worth simulating in the most sophisticated of digital systems. While most simulation designers take the opportunity to de‑emphasise the less desirable characteristics in favour of the more useful ones, the Millennium's spring simulation appears to consist entirely of the less desirable characteristics! Perhaps users can look forward to a software upgrade on this one.
Despite my criticisms of some aspects of its operation, I really enjoyed using the Johnson Millennium during the test period. Like all 'emulating' amps, whatever their principle of operation, it is not actually anything like using the real thing, but some of its (intentionally) less subtle sounds are nevertheless very impressive in their own right and a joy to use in the correct context. Many of the high gain presets 'feel' very right indeed, allowing you the full range of expressive pick technique variations. Pinched harmonics are a doddle, and on all but the flat‑out thrash presets, the sound cleans up nicely as you back off the volume control. Inevitably, the classic 'valve amp just going into overdrive' sounds are more of a compromise, but that is in the nature of the system and will be well accepted by the kind of user I imagine the Millennium appealing to — the player who has to be able to totally re‑invent their sound from song to song, or perhaps even from verse to chorus, at the same time as needing a portable, self‑contained system — perhaps the covers band player, the busy session player who carries their own gear and, of course, the home recording player who also gigs. There are other products in the 'super amp' market, but the Millennium's nearest rival, in terms of the breadth of its capability, is probably the AX2 212 from Line 6 (see Paul White's update in this issue, page 40) and if you are in the market for either one of these, you should make the effort to check out the other as well. This is a highly subjective area where judgements can not be made from a comparative features list.
If you are a guitarist who needs a lot of effects and you require the maximum amount of flexibility that technology can currently offer in both your recorded and live sound, you are looking at two choices: a custom component system, with preamp, power amp, multi‑effects and tuner in a rack, plus a couple of cabinets (for stereo); or one of the current generation of 'super amps' offering all of the above in a portable package. If your preference is the latter, then the Johnson Millennium scores very heavily in the key areas of sound, flexibility and ease of use.
The Effects List
- Dual Chorus
- Quad Chorus
- Octal Chorus
- Dual Flanger
- Dual Phaser
- Rotary Speaker
- Stereo Tremolo
- Auto Pan
- Dual Detune
- Quad Detune
- Octal Detune
- Smooth Pitch Shift
- Dual Pitch Shift
- Quad Pitch Shift
- Octal Pitch Shift
- Stereo Pitch Shift
- Stereo Dual Pitch Shift
- Dual Delay
- Quad Delay
- Stereo Delay
- Stereo Dual Delay
- Stereo Quad Delay
- Long Delay
- Analogue Delay
- Stereo Analogue Delay
- Chorus Delay
- Flange Delay
- Pre Delay
- Dual Reverb
- Stereo Reverb
- Gated Reverb
- Stereo Gated Reverb
- Room Echo
- Spring Tank
- Auto Wah
- 8‑band Graphic EQ
- 15‑band Graphic EQ
- 31‑band Graphic EQ
- Stereo 8‑band Graphic EQ
- Stereo 3‑band Parametric EQ
- 6‑band Parametric EQ
- Stereo 6‑band Parametric EQ
Boogie Dual Rectifier
Boogie Mk II Head
'65 'Black Face' Fender Twin
'65 Twin Bright
Boogie Mk II combo
Boogie Rectifier combo
Marshall Master volume
Marshall JCM 800
'Hot Rod' Marshall Master Volume
Vox AC30 Top Boost
The Johnson Millennium is loaded with real‑time control possibilities, with two jacks for expression pedals, MIDI In and Out/Thru, a three‑pole jack for the supplied footswitch and a five‑pin DIN socket (not a MIDI connection, but you can use a MIDI cable if it is of the type where all five pins remain separate) for a sophisticated floor controller such as the Johnson J12 or a Digitech Control 1. Control assignment on the Millennium is about as easy as it could possibly be, making it far more likely that owners will actually make use of powerful features such as the "morphing" facility within the Johnson‑based presets.
The expression pedal jacks are equally happy with keyboard‑type (0 to 5V) voltage‑control pedals or standard guitar volume pedals (25kΩ to 1MΩ) and the supplied J3 footswitch which, while it defaults to basic Preset up/down switching and 'amp channel' selection, can also be re‑defined to offer other useful functions such as effects bypass, tuner access or 'tap tempo' delay time setting.
- Good range of very usable sounds.
- Easy to operate.
- Good value for money compared to an equivalent component system.
- Level disparity between amp models.
- No independent recording output level control.
This won't be to everyone's taste, but for those with the right set of questions, the Millennium has all the right answers. A stylish, elegantly executed product with the potential to go even further.