2019 Review: Pedal Platform Amps

Rather than do a ‘best of’ style post, every year I’m going to do a rundown of what amps I’m using for pedal platforms, and why.

tl;dr

2019 is the first year where we’ve had affordable amps that cover all of the classic sounds AND that tick all the boxes for use by home players.

  • Blackstar’s Studio 10 6L6 is my go-to amp for pedals that want a completely clean amp. Pedals designed in the USA often work best into this amp.
  • Marshall’s Origin 20 is my go-to amp for pedals that want an amp that’s on the edge of break-up. Cheap (non-clone!) pedals – such as Boss’s classic range – often work best into this amp.
  • Vox’s Mini Superbeetle gives me a way to use pedals that are exploring other classic rock sounds. It’s a good choice for boosts and the like.

Synergy’s modular amp system is still my go-to choice for when I just want the best sound possible. All I have to do is swap between preamps to suit whatever pedal is on my test board.

Marshall’s DSL20 HR and Boss’s Katana are two amps that are popular with home players. I’ve now got both, but I don’t know them well enough yet, and I’m so happy with the other amps, I don’t use these very often.

Why Multiple Amps?

There isn’t a single amp on the market that works for every single drive pedal out there. Different pedals need different things from an amp, and no one amp provides all of those things in a single box.

Fortunately, most pedals work with (at least) one of the three classic amp sounds:

  • The mid-scooped clean tones of a Fender Deluxe Reverb (often called a DRRI on forums). This is known as an “American clean sound” or the “blackface clean sound”.
  • The aggressive gritty tones of a Marshall 1959 SuperLead or Marshall JCM 800. This is known as a “British rock sound” or the “plexi sound”.
  • The trebly tones of a Vox AC30. This is known as the “chimey sound”.

We haven’t had affordable amps that do all three of these in the past. Amp manufacturers filled in most of the gaps last year (Marshall Origin 20H and Vox Mini Superbeetle), and then this year Blackstar filled in the last remaining gap for us.

And it might just be the best amp they’ve ever made.

Blackstar Studio 10 6L6

Launched this year, Blackstar’s Studio 10 6L6 has satisfied my need for blackface cleans at home volumes. It’s quickly become the amp that I use the most with pedals.

One of the reasons for that is that I’ve had a lot of American-designed pedals this year. I’ve found that many of these pedals are voiced for blackface cleans. They include a mid-hump to compensate for the mid-scoop in the original Fender Deluxe Reverb, and sometimes the pedal’s mid-hump is just too much to suit the Marshall Origin.

Another reason is that I’ve been playing a lot more Fender guitars this year (something I’ll talk about tomorrow). Telecasters sound great into the Marshall Origin too, but I grew up with clean Strat tones, and for me a clean Strat needs that classic Fender clean tone.

I had a scare with the amp during the summer heatwave, where the amp stopped working on the hottest days. The hot days ended before I could get the amp looked at. It’s been utterly reliable since.

If you can only have one affordable amp at home, and you want an amp for pedals, take a look at the Blackstar Studio 10 6L6 first.

Marshall Origin 20H

I got this amp when it finally went on sale at the end of April 2018, and by the start of 2019, this was the only amp that I was using. It completely replaced both my Blackstar HT-100 (RIP) and my Synergy amp.

This year, the Marshall Origin 20H has still had a lot of use, but by the end of the year, it’s no longer my main home amp. That role has been taken by the Blackstar Studio 10 6L6.

It’s not going anywhere. I still love it, and as I start spending time with the pedals I’ve picked up this year, it’s going to be getting plenty of use.

Marshall DSL 20HR

When Marshall released the Origin, they also revamped the DSL line of amps, and one of the changes they made was to finally introduce a 20w head. I tried (and failed!) to get one last year, but I was having so much fun with the Origin that I wasn’t all that bothered.

I picked one up this year out of curiosity. It’s an amp that people do buy, and it does have a clean channel that sounds very different to how the Marshall Origin sounds.

So far, I’m not using very much.

It’s just a time thing, more than anything. I got the amp in the summer, and the second half of the year has mostly gone on the home studio revamp. Now that’s done, I should be able to start getting into this amp a lot more.

Boss Katana 100 Head

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Boss Katana is currently the world’s best-selling amp for home use. But that’s not why I got one this year. Well, not the only reason.

Roland (Boss’s parent company) is doing a Gibson, and losing independent guitar shops from their list of dealers. The problem is pricing. A big retailer can sell a Boss pedal for less than Roland charges a small guitar shop to buy the pedals in. As a result, my local shop couldn’t afford to keep selling Boss gear, and I ended up buying their last Katana head before they sold out.

Although it does sound great with pedals, I mostly use this amp’s clean channel with my Strat. It gives me the sound that I used in the mid 90’s. I’m planning on going back and exploring my material from those times, and I’ll be doing it using this amp.

Vox Mini Superbeetle

I don’t get the whole Vox AC30 thing. My good friends Andrew and Adam are both completely sold on these amps. Me? Not so much.

That’s why I got a Mini Superbeetle earlier this year. They sound close enough to a real AC30 for me to start to learn what this amp genre can offer, without needing to be cranked to ear-bleeding level to deliver the best tone.

Just like the Marshall DSL 20HR, it hasn’t had a lot of use yet. The one time I did sit down with it properly, it sounded great. In fact, it sounded so good, it inspired me to dig out the AC module for my Synergy amp and fall in love with it for the very first time.

I’m not using it with the cab that comes with it.

Heads + Speaker Cabs Are Better Than Combos

I prefer to buy amp heads rather than combos, and to run them into separate speaker cabs. That hasn’t changed at all this year.

I started down this road purely for space reasons. I just don’t have any room for combo amps. (The one combo that I have – Blackstar’s Studio 10 6L6 – is small enough to sit on a shelf). The nice thing about amp heads is that you can stack them on top of each other, so that they don’t take up extra floor space. And they don’t need their own speaker cabs. I just swap the speaker cables over.

There’s another good reason to go with separates: speaker choice.

I am not a fan of how the Marshall Origin combo amps sound at all, yet I love my Marshall Origin amp head. The difference? The speaker. The combos come with a V-Type speaker, and I really don’t like the results. To me, they sound harsh and ice-picky, and there’s so much high-frequency output it physically hurts my ears.

I’ve got a set of four 1×12 cabs, and each one’s got a different speaker.

  • 15 Ohm Celestion Blue
  • 16 Ohm Celestion A-Type
  • 16 Ohm Celestion G12M-65 Creamback
  • 16 Ohm Celestion Vintage 30

You can link them together in parallel, so that the amp sees a single 8 ohm load instead, and that’s exactly what I do. I’ve always got the A-Type speaker active, and I’ll add in either the Celestion Blue or the Creamback depending on what mood I’m in. (The Vintage 30 almost never gets used).

Synergy Went Unused Most Of The Year

September 2018, I replaced a lot of the furniture in the room where I have my amps. I had to unwire everything to make that possible … and I was so happy with my Marshall Origin that I didn’t get around to wiring it all back up for a whole year.

I’ve been making up for lost time as the year draws to a close. It sounds phenomenal. It’s been great to have it back in action for exploring the Fender MTG and MTG:LA pedals in particular. But the reason it spent a whole year unwired still applies.

The achilles heel of the Synergy rig is the active cooling in the Synergy 5050 power amp. It’s only got two fan speeds: noisy, and take-off, and even on cold days it’ll reach take-off level of noise if it’s used for more than a couple of hours.

This year, the Synergy head shells became available. They should have passive cooling, which would solve the problem entirely. That’s an option that I need to look into for 2020.

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