Now I'm a Believer
I haven't owned a tube amp since the early 1980s when I was playing an all-mahogany Gibson "The Paul" through a Peavey Classic 50. Since then, I've been through two different digital modeling amps, two hardware modeling amp simulators, and four software amp emulators, and every one of them sounded a thousand times better than my old '80s rig, bereft as I was of any stomp boxes or rack effects or, for that matter, playing skill. So, perhaps you'll pardon me for having scrunched my face up and turned my back with a dismissive wave every time I've heard some analog purist or self-proclaimed tone guru rant in a forum about how awful modeling amps are and how tubes are the only way to go.
But secretly, the whole time, there was something lacking in my tone, and it was gnawing like a rat at the back of my brain. I changed pickups in my guitars, and guitars around my pickups. I even changed picks: tortex, metal, rosewood, ebony, from paper-thin Dunlops to Yngwie (F'ing) Malmsteen signature picks as thick as phone books. But the search for the sound in my head was never-ending and the sound on my home recordings remained... home recording-like.
And then my HT-5RH arrived from Sweetwater. Bigger than I thought it would be, and beautiful. Beautiful in that way that gear can be to those of us who crave it. No, seriously, this is a gorgeous head, with that "cracked vinyl" covering all over it so it looks like a couch in a strip club, the corners all protected by metal, the shiny black control face and even shinier serrated silver control knobs. It's every bit the quality and ruggedness of a full-scale 100-watt Blackstar death-dealer, just -- smaller. I knew as I pulled it from the box and carried it to my "studio" that this was the nicest amp I'd ever owned -- and at such a low price... if only all superlatives were this easy to achieve when it comes to gear.
Then I set it up and started touching it. This is a solid amp, nice and appropriately chunky for the size, with knobs that really give you a sense of confidence when you twist them.
But all that sexiness would be for nothing if the amp doesn't sound better than my current 75W tooth-rattler of a modeling amp. I have no cabinet (bought this for recording, not gigging) so I plugged headphones into the emulated speaker out, plugged a homemade dual humbucker shredder into the input, powered up and started playing clean. Nice freaking clean channel. NICE. I've got some pretty darn good sounding clean presets saved on my various modelers, both hardware and software, but this was different... the amp reacted to the way I plucked a string, almost like compression. Expressiveness mattered... which suddenly meant I had to start paying attention to it and playing better. Wait, could this be the effect of real tubes? Hey, no time to get philosophical, let's dirty this thing up.
I stomped on the (also very rugged feeling) included footswitch and engaged the overdrive, which was rolled down fairly low. A nice, toasty crunch rewarded my ears, and again, there was that expressiveness to my picking, and a clarity to each note, even in dissonant chords that would usually be obscured by overdrive. The tubes? I thought again. Let's heat 'em up!
I spent the next hour trying different settings and different guitars. The homemade beast with the Alternative 8 in the bridge that had always seemed too bright on all my modeling amps regardless of setting (even with a 300K tone pot and .022 cap in it) suddenly sounded -- dare I use these tired adjectives? -- "tight" and "warm" through the Blackstar. My other homemade monster with the Full Shred neck and Invader bridge loved the high gain settings and chimed like crystal on the clean channel. The Ed Roman custom with the two Duncan Blackbacks was at home throughout the range of every knob on this amp, and the 60th Anniversary strat with its HSS and 5-position switch combined with the HT-5's ISF and 3-band EQ for a nearly infinite variety of tones, and through it all, there was that tightness, that clarity, that response to how I plucked strings, either by pick or by fingerpicking, that had been absent in my modelers. And it started to make sense... these were physical tubes being driven by my high gain pickups and the differences in the velocity of my picking, where modelers just use math and convolution to add emulated responses to any signal that comes in the input hole, no matter its volume or dynamics. The light came on: there IS a difference between tube amps and the other varieties. I've heard it now with my own ears, felt it in the amp's response to my admittedly hamfisted playing.
Is it the sound in my head I'm hearing with the HT-5RH, as Blackstar so cleverly says in their ad copy? For the most part, yes. Pretty darn close. All it needs in some cases is some delay, some chorus on occasion (the onboard reverb is very nice... understated except in its most extreme settings, it just "opens" up the sound a little wider when you rotate the knob clockwise, without getting that noisy spring/plate sound). And that's why I bought the 5W version over the 1W... this one has an effects loop; so now I am already filling my wish list with stomp boxes that I had long neglected due to the nature of my modeling amps and VSTs. And I can tell I'm going to need the cabinets that match this head. I can't imagine firing up my modeler much, now that I've experienced this amp. In fact, that's likely to go up in my 9-year-old's room for him to play his mini-Strat through.
So... the above is to give you an idea of just how nice this head is. It's made a believer out of a doubting hipster, a "new tech beats old tech any day" banner carrier. To recap: it's rugged, it's gorgeous, and it sounds like that dream amp playing in your head... only smaller. Get one. Unleash your inner rock star.