Back in the day, I spent a significant amount of time in front of amps ranging in power from 100 to 160 watts, with 2 x 12″ and 4 x 12″ cabinets. As those larger amps became untenable in my playing situations, I dropped back to a 50-watt, 4 x 10″ combo model – an early ’90s-era version of a classic ’60s amp. It worked well for live performances – the volume was more manageable, and it had updated features such as a master volume control and an overdrive channel, which increased the versatility. But for the studio, that large of an amp was overkill in most situations.
Looking for a better studio solution that could also serve as a more portable low-volume rehearsal amp, I picked up a 20-watt, 1 x 12″ combo with a master volume control. The volume was reasonable, but I wasn’t all that happy with the tone; the manufacturer had hyped the bottom end to make up for the small cabinet, and the tone was boxy. It lacked the clarity and presence I wanted. So, I went back to my old reliable friends for the next decade or so: a Mesa/Boogie Mark IIB combo and a modified Marshall JCM-800 1 x 12 combo, often running them through a 4 x 12″ cabinet. The sound was great, but it was definitely a volume struggle.
These days, I use a 40-watt, 1 x 12″ combo with a pedalboard for tone shaping at live gigs, adding a 1 x 12″ extension cabinet where possible for tighter low end and fuller sound. This also works in the studio, but I’ve been looking for an amp that I could drive harder, at more reasonable levels.
See, in my view, there are actually good reasons that tube guitar amps need to be turned up to a certain level:
- At the right level, the cabinet starts to resonate and the tone fills out.
- Similarly, at the right level, the speaker itself loosens up and sings.
- At a certain level, the transformer saturates, which, in my opinion, makes a huge contribution to the sound.
- When driven hard, the power amp tubes begin to contribute harmonics and sweet distortion; this is very different from the distortion created by preamp tubes.
The problem with all of those reasons for pushing a tube amp is that, with a large amp, you end up with massive volume levels. And, at least in my world, there aren’t that many places where I’m able to engage in such volume freedom. That’s why I was so excited to see and hear the new Vox Night Train amplifier at the Winter NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) tradeshow this past January. Compact, lightweight, and portable – in fact, it comes with a padded gig bag with a shoulder strap – the Night Train is a 15-watt all-tube amp head that can be switched to half-power (just 71/2 watts). The Night Train looks great, with its chrome and black metal casing, and its creme “chicken-head” knobs.
Speaking of knobs, there are five on the front panel: Gain, Treble, Middle, Bass, and Volume. There are also three switches: Bright/Thick (sets the preamp mode), OP Mode (changes the power amp stage from pentode to triode operation, effectively cutting the power in half), and Mains power on/off. In the Bright preamp mode, the sound is (here’s a surprise) brighter, with a reasonable amount of gain – you can crank it up to get a crunchy tone with good sustain, but it doesn’t produce full-on saturation in this mode. In Thick preamp mode, the tone stack (EQ circuit) is bypassed and the gain is kicked up, for a full, rich, harmonically dense sound with plenty of sustain.
As for tone, the Night Train has it! From the chiming sounds Vox is famous for to heavy, grinding, punchy sounds, this amp can cover a lot of ground. I tried it with Vox, Marshall, and Fender extension cabinets, using a wide variety of guitars (a Tele, a Strat, a Les Paul, a couple of PRSs) and pickups (P-90s, single-coils, and humbuckers), and the amp sounded great with all of them.
I was especially happy with the Tele tones. In Bright mode, you can dial in just the right amount of grit (Brad Paisley, anyone?), while maintaining clarity and an open top end. It can get spanky, or it can get twangy. Or, on the neck pickup, it can give you the perfect sound for electric blues.
I was equally pleased with the singing humbucker sounds in the Thick preamp mode. No matter how much gain you pile on, you can still clean things up with the volume knob on your guitar; the amp stays dynamic and responsive. P-90s provide a cool, ripping sound in Bright mode, and they switch to full-on screaming when you hit Thick mode.
If you think that, at 15 watts, the Night Train is an anemic, wimpy amp, then think again! You’ll be surprised how loud the Night Train can crank. For studio work, I found that the Triode (71/2 watts) is perfect; you can wind the amp up to where it opens up and sings, but the volume level remains acceptable for use in non-soundproof rooms. Whether at 15 or 71/2 watts, the Night Train is controllable and family friendly, without sacrificing tone or punch. Ideal for the studio and for smaller gigs where the drum volume is low or where you’re miking the amp through the PA.
So, after all that, you may be wondering how much I really like the Night Train. The answer: I bought one for myself – that should say it all!