Apr 28, 2013
The ID: Series represents the culmination of more than seven years technical research and development by the same team that designed Series One, Artisan and HT Venue. The unique controls allow you to custom design your own sound, store it and then have the confidence that the amp will perform in a live environment. By using the unique Voice control, patented ISF and patent-applied-for True Valve Power, these amplifiers allow unparalleled flexibility and ease of use, enabling you to in effect, design the sound in your head and deliver it live as LOUD as valve™. Individuality is power!
Welcome to Six-String Samurai birthday week!! We’ve got a whole lot lined up for you this week including an interview with the Heavy Metal Ninjas, the awesome shenanigans of life on the road on tour in the USA from BC Rich endorsee Ross McDougall… and of course, a review! We were talking to our good friends at the Rockshop, and the conversation came to focus on a particular new amp from Blackstar. Something solid state, but a little bit unconventional. It sounded intriguing – so we figured, why the hell not?! Oh, and sorry for the slightly crappy pictures this time around – we were too busy getting messed up for our birthday celebration, and also it was rainy outside.
The ID: Series of amps from Blackstar comprises the ID:15TVP, ID:30TVP, ID:60TVP (available as combo and head), ID:100TVP (head only), and the big daddy, the ID:260TVP, which is what I’ve got here today. The key to the cryptic name designation is the acronym “TVP”. It stands for True Valve Power, which is immediately a misnomer since this is a 100% solid state amp. So, um, what the hell is going on then?
True Valve Power
True Valve Power, or TVP, is what Blackstar are touting as the key feature of the ID: Series. Instead of your most common form of modelling – “Treadplate”, “British Non-Master” and other generic names – which model specific amps, Blackstar have gone a different way for these amps and decided to offer something quite unique for this end of the price spectrum - poweramp tube modelling. So how does this work? This is where it gets a little convoluted. On the preamp side, you’re offered a number of basic voicing options, with the stock descriptions from Blackstar:
- Clean Warm - Very clean, dynamic
- Clean Bright - ‘Boutique’, will break up when pushed hard
- Crunch - Classic medium gain overdrive
- Super Crunch - More gain and punch than Crunch
- OD1 - Hot-rodded Master Volume overdrive with medium power amp damping
- OD2 - Mid boosted hot-rod overdrive
So these options give you a base voicing to start off with, as well as gain/EQ roughly associated with the name – Clean Warm for example has more mids than Clean Bright, and Crunch is less gainy than Super Crunch, and so on. Once you’ve selected one of these, you then have the option to engage the TVP or poweramp tube modelling. And even though there is a button to turn TVP on and off, you should really NEVER have it off – it sounds terribly thin and buzzy without it engaged. TVP gives you the choice to emulate a power section with any one of these tubes:
- EL84 – Bell-like full bodied Class A with lots of compression
- 6V6 -Crisp Class A with high compression and tight mids
- EL34 – Classic British Class A/B crunch with full bodied soft break-up
- KT66 – Rich and warm vintage British hot biased Class A/B
- 6L6 – Tight dynamic Class A/B with extended high and lows
- KT88 – Tight, bold and dynamic Class A/B with strong low end
That’s what they say, anyway. As with any gear, you can use the description as a guide, but the first and last authority should be your own ears.
So, how does TVP sound?
Actually – pretty cool! Now, if you’re still harbouring any illusions that these will supplant and surpass your rich buddy’s Marshall Plexi, Bogner Uberschall, or a Mesa Dual Rec, let me stop you right there. It sure as hell won’t. And that’s not what these amps are designed for. For competition in the high end of the market, Blackstar have the Artisan and Series 1 ranges. So what’s the use of these amps then? For me, personally, I think this could be for two particular types of players:
- Someone who’s relatively new to amps, and wants to get a bit more of a feel for how amps with certain poweramp tubes are voiced before committing to a bigger buy.
- Someone with lots of experience with amps and wants a decent coverage of different poweramp voicings for volume controllable home use or to leave in the band room.
Everything in modulation.
Ah yes, I almost forgot! One of the best things about the ID: Series is that they include on-board digital FX in the form of modulation, delays and reverb. Most of the time, on-board FX in amps like these are pretty nasty, but I think that the ones included in here are actually pretty good! You get Flanger, Phaser, Chorus and Tremolo, as well as a gamut of delay and reverb types. Each one has two adjustable parameters (usually a depth and mix sort of control), and additionally the time-based effects have tap tempo! You can turn on any combination of modulation, delay and reverb that you want. Combine them all for all the atmospheric spaceyness that you could ever need.
Pick a tube, any tube
Okay… so with a setup like this, the possibilities are somewhat limitless. Unfortunately, our time, and my attention span, are rather limited. So here’s the strategy for today’s review – I’m going to go through 4 (count ‘em, 4) of the tones that I liked the best from the amp, with some effects where applicable. That will be your baseline. THEN, I’ll hit the TVP knob, and roll through all the different tube options using constant preamp settings, so that you can get an idea of how the TVP control changes the sound. How about it? Confused? Yes, I am also slightly confused, but then again I always am. Let’s just dive right in.
With uber clean tones, I usually gravitate towards brighter, crisper sounds, and this time was no different. Setting the preamp mode to Clean Bright and 6L6 tube emulation, I quickly found some tones that I loved. Adding in some tasteful modulation was just the icing on the cake – I ended up going with a lovely stereo trem, and then a lush chorus tone for the next one. Check ‘em out!
Crunch it up
Everyone likes a good Marshally crunch. Aiming to get into that ballpark, I set the amp into Crunch mode (duh) and EL34 tube emulation. Crunchy, a little chewy, with a good amount of bark. Nice.
The next step in amp evolution was, of course, the hotrodded Marshall sound. Super Crunch is where that lives, for me. A little bit more sizzle and thump than plain ol’ Crunch. Add some delay and ‘verb, and you’re in 80s widdly town:
Time to turbocharge!
There are hotrodded Marshalls, and then there are the ones where they’re so juiced that they burn through tubes like a hot knife through some form of semi solid butter. You know what I’m talking about. I decided to go with 6L6 tube emulation for this one, to give it a bit more oomph in the low mids, and to try and get into that Van Halen/Soldano-esque ballpark with the OD2 preamp. Little bit o’ tape echo to add that vintage feel, and then of course, you gotta phase! The phaser sounds like it’s a a stereo affair that’s placed AFTER the preamp (rather than before the preamp as I prefer it) so it didn’t really get the effect I intended – but it’s still pretty cool.
Just for fun, I thought I’d do some Zakk Wylde-style squealy riffing, first with EL34 tube emulation running, then switching to 6L6. Both on the OD1 preamp. See what you think:
Let’s TVP this shiz
Okay – so those were my picks from the tones that I got through experimenting and tweaking. Now, let’s hear some basic playing while cycling through the tube emulation controls. Dirty first, then clean – both start with KT88 and then go down the list (scroll up the page to see the full list, ya lazy bum!).
Truth be told… for clean sounds I could hardly tell the difference, but for drive tones you could definitely hear/feel differences in EQ and response between the different types of tubes being emulated.
But wait, there’s more!
I forgot to mention – well, it was on purpose, but whatever.
Every single clip on here today was recorded DIRECT into my audio interface via the Blackstar’s emulated outs. I used both the USB and 1/4″ outs just to test them out, and was pleasantly surprised, so much so that I thought that they were good enough to do the whole review with! The cab emulated out on the amp was a little thumpy and over-emphasized in the lower mids compared to what I was hearing in the room, but all it really needed was a high-pass filter to cut some of them out, and voila! All the tones in this review.
I find that pretty impressive.
Blackstar’s Insider software also offers you a nice GUI to control it all from your computer, as well as to install updates to the amp. It’s well laid out, and very intuitive to use.
One complaint though – there is obviously no roll-back system in case your internet connection dies halfway through downloading an update to the amp. This happened to me when it went to auto-update, and when I tried to power up the amp again, it started flashing the Tap button, indicating that NO FUCKING VALID SOFTWARE WAS AVAILABLE IN THE AMP!!!! I almost had a freaking heart attack. If that happens, even the factory reset protocols DO NOT WORK. So if this happens to you, just try and be very careful about your connection, and if it doesn’t work try it on another computer (which is what I ended up doing).
Also, apparently you can do reamping with the USB connection, but it didn’t seem to want to work for me.
To sum up, your honour
A really interesting effort from Blackstar – something a little different from the beaten path. I have mixed feelings about whether the execution was deftly handled, so let’s try and sum it up with a +/- sort of list.
Be interested if:
- You are relatively inexperienced with the different types of amps and the poweramp tubes they use, and want a bit of a baseline to figure out what tones you may like.
- You’re an experienced player well-versed in what you like in an amp/tubes, and are search of a practice amp that can give you a wide variety of customization options to create your own tones, not necessarily restricted by classic amp designs.
- Are one of these people, and want something that’s easy to record from. Easy as pie. Tasty pie.
Be not as interested if:
- You don’t want a huge degree of tweakability. The preamp voicings, ISF control, TVP are all a bit much if tweaking is not your bag.
- You want straightforward industry standard modelling – a Dual Rec model, or a Plexi model, and so forth.
Birthday Samurai gives this guy 3 Fuck Yeahs! Ambitious concept, sounds quite good – but I think it needs a little refining in some areas.