In the second of his occasional series on the heaviest of heavy equipment, Amit Sharma gives the once over to an amp so heavy it probably has it’s own gravitational pull.
Blackstar….isn’t that Charlie from Busted’s band?
No, not quite. Blackstar are a relatively new UK based company that manufacture high quality boutique amplifiers and pedals. Within the past few years they have recruited some high profile artists as endorsees including members of Opeth, Dimmu Borgir, Cancer Bats and most recently Gus G – who was unveiled as Ozzy’s new shred demon. Is that heavy enough for you?
The brand was actually created in 2004 by ex Marshall employees with the mission of creating world class equipment without the gut-wrenching price tag – which could be construed as ‘like Marshall but better’. After rave reviews of their first amp range (the vintage sounding Artisan series) it was now time for them to put out an amp that could really make people’s ears bleed.
Series One 200 – as in 200 Watts???
You bet your ass. This monster runs at 200 Watts on full whack and trust me when I say it’s loud enough to make even Lemmy wince in pain. But the Blackstar boys have been very very clever indeed: the amp has built in Dynamic Power Reduction (DPR) that can take it down to 10 per cent of it’s rated output without sacrificing that crucial valve tone. In fact this ingenious little dial actually allows you to cook those KT88 power valves at lower volumes which is perfect for practicing, recording, playing smaller clubs – pretty much any situation bar playing the Reading Festival main stage with no PA.
There’s another nifty wee function on the Series One range – the Infinite Shape Feature (ISF) control which allows you to voice the amp from American (eg. Mesa Boogie) to British (eg. Marshall) and anywhere in between. This dial allows the user to adjust the response of the tone control network and opens up an array of possibilities to find ‘the sound in your head’ which, rather aptly, is brand’s slogan.
Watch Jamie Humphries demo the Blackstar Series One 200:
So how does it sound?
For this test we’re using a 2004 Gibson Les Paul Custom loaded with EMG Zakk Wylde pickups going straight into the head, which is hooked up to a bog standard Marshall 1960a cabinet with Celestion G12T75 speakers.
The Clean channel of the Series One boasts two different modes: Bright, for a more glassy US sound; and Warm for a more British tone with an emphasised Mid-range. The Bright mode is a bit shrill and harsh, even with a dark sounding guitar like a Les Paul, though would perhaps suit the janglier end of Indie-Rock (Ew!) or Country. The Warm mode, however, really sings with more focus on low-end frequencies and roundness throughout the sonic spectrum. By reducing the output using the DPR control, it becomes much easier to find that elusive sweet spot where you can hear the valves being driven just up to break point, and some rather lush natural compression. Using this in conjunction with the EQ and ISF controls allow you to pretty much nail any clean sound you want, from the more polished Enter Sandman intro to the more raunchy sound from the GnR ballad Don’t Cry.
The Crunch channel also offers an extra mode: Super Crunch, which surprisingly enough, adds more of a kick to the Crunch sound dialed in. This channel is where this amp really starts to stand out, with a very boutique flavour that comes close to an original 60’s Marshall Bluesbreaker as used by Clapton in his earlier days. It is actually good enough to blow away most amps that specialise in that compressed, valve crunch sound – it’s that awesome! This channel is unbelievably responsive and dynamic, and comes to life even more when you ditch the pick and go for the fingerstyle approach. The Super Crunch mode adds more sizzle and takes you closer to a classic rock rhythm tone – perfect for jamming out AC/DC or Led Zeppelin riffs. This is where the ISF control seems to have the most impact, with that Texan bite on the left side and more of a British growl on the right. Needless to say, like any decent crunch channel – rolling down your volume on your guitar gets you back to a crystal clean sound.
The OD1 Channel takes you into a higher gain territory starting where the Super Crunch channel left off and nails that 80’s Marshall JCM 800 tone straight off the bat, especially when the ISF control is leaning towards the right (our side of the pond). On fairly neutral settings, the low end is very tight and the higher frequencies sit on top just right, providing clarity without sounding shrill. Given that the guitar is a mid-range instrument, this amp allows the natural frequencies to really sing and the outcome is a more organic, almost transparent tone. This fairly flat setting is right on the money for the classic rock tones of Aerosmith and Motley Crue, and cranking the bass and gain unveils that earthquake inducing Zakk Wylde roar. So that pretty much nails your Marshally sounds, though turning the ingenious ISF control to the left scoops out the mids and utterly transforms the amp’s identity. Suddenly this beast (it weighs 27.2kg) has a voice closer to the American Mesa-Boogie end of the market and unlocks the more modern metal tones of Lamb Of God, Killswitch Engage and Machine Head.
Finally we have the OD2 Channel which (much to our surprise) is somewhat disappointing. It should be a much ballsier, filthier version of OD1 but somehow loses the clarity and sounds almost a bit muffled in comparison. In practice this channel would only be for leads when you need a push in gain and volume, but it still baffles me as to why it doesn’t maintain the standards of quality the rest of the amp carries so well. Thankfully the OD1 Channel covers the high-gain rhythm and lead territory brilliantly enough for not much to be missed here at all.
Though it’s not quite as outstanding as the Diezel VH4 (which costs a grand more) it must be said that the Blackstar Series One is one of the best sounding high-gain amps in the mid-price market and totally eclipses anything similar by more established brands like Marshall or Peavey. In terms of sheer value for money, you get a high quality-sounding amp that oozes versatility without the boutique price tag and some very innovative features (ISF and DPR controls). You’ll never have problems getting heard given the rated output of 200W but still have access to that gorgeous valve saturation at bedroom levels. This amp boasts bucketloads of attack and definition with enough grit n’ gain to make even the Pope feel dirty. Actually come to think of it, he doesn’t need that much help there at the moment…
Pros: It can pretty much nail any sound you want. Affordable due to Korean manufacturing. Extensive tonal shaping through the patented ISF and DPR controls. Is possibly the loudest amp out there.
Cons: Disappointing OD2 Channel.
Price: £1249 (head)
Output: 200-Watt head with built-in DPR power reduction
Additional Outputs: Speaker emulated output
Channels: 4 footswitchable channels
Clean channel with Warm (Plexi) and Bright (Class A) type modes
Crunch channel with Crunch and Super Crunch modes
Two overdrive channels with high and low output damping
Tonal Shaping: Two ISF control sections and Presence / Resonance controls
Loops: Series effects loop
MIDI: MIDI switching
Tubes: 4 x ECC83, 1 x ECC82, 4 x KT88 valves