Tech 21 Sansamp
The ultimate DI sound is the Holy Grail for recording guitarists. Dave Lockwood test (over)drives a black box that moves a step closer to the goal.
The American-made Sansamp is a combined overdrive pedal and DI pre-amp with speaker simulator. Powered by a 9V battery and built into a die-cast metal box with a footswitch, it acknowledges an origin in the long tradition of guitar effects pedals, but its appearance is somewhat misleading for the Sansamp's potential usage goes way beyond that of most pedals. Used for DI recording of guitars, this rather unassuming unit surprisingly proved itself to be one of the best simulators of a valve, (tube) amp/speaker combination that I have yet heard.
The Sansamp uses analogue (FET) circuitry to create its extremely convincing distorted and gently overdriven sounds, and although the number of controls is limited the unit proved, with a little experimentation, to be surprisingly versatile. Unbalanced 1/4" jacks are used for both input and output, and the footswitch (with LED) bypasses the overdrive circuitry but maintains the buffered DI output. The four rotary controls are marked Amplifier Drive, Presence Drive, Output and High. Amplifier Drive and Output operate pretty much as you would expect, setting input gain (hence overdrive level) and output level, respectively.
The High control seems to be an overall post-processing top-cut facility, best used at maximum for DI recording and around halfway or less when used with inherently more toppy guitar amplification. Presence Drive is a little more subtle, allowing considerable flexibility in determining the overdrive character, from hard and 'wiry' to rich and smooth. I found some of the Sansamp's nicest sounds with the Amp Drive set low, around one third, whilst the Presence Drive was above three quarters. Although the Sansamp is pretty quiet for this type of device, setting the Presence Drive to maximum does introduce considerably more hiss than any other set-up. I think I would want an expander on the end of it in this configuration, whereas you could get away without one on any other settings.
A 3-position switch adjacent to the input determines the fundamental pre-amp tonal quality, with Lead (emphasized top and midrange), Normal (fairly full and neutral), and Bass settings. Bass is not a bottom-end boosted setting, but rather one in which the lower frequencies have not been filtered out. There is still plenty of top, and this position makes a rather good job of simulating a clean pre-amp such as a Fender type, and is also excellent on bass guitar, giving a DI signal a richness and fullness that you would normally associate only with high quality bass amplification.
The fundamental business of the Sansamp's amplifier simulations begins, however, with the 8-way DIP switch bank in the centre of the unit, with which you determine the basic character of the amp simulation. Switches 1 and 2 provide mid-range peaks at two different frequencies, whilst switch 3 in its off position removes low-frequencies — I found it preferable to leave it on all the time. The two mids can be usefully combined for particularly full and powerful overdrive sounds.
The fourth switch is labelled Clean Amp. Flipping this on gives a reduction of sensitivity, and less noise, giving you the whole range of the Amplifier Drive control to find just the right break-up point perhaps for touch-sensitive distortion on rhythm parts. Driving the full output of the guitar into the Clean Amp configuration produces a usefully different sound to reducing the guitar output on a more sensitive setting; there is a lot more 'chunk' (guitarists will know what I mean by that!).
Switches 5 and 6 are designated Bright and Vintage Tubes. Bright only operates when the drive control is at lower settings — at high distortion settings the harmonic content is so great as to render further brightening superfluous. The 'Vintage' setting seems to soften the distortion a touch and, rather authentically I thought, proved to my ears to be too mellow for humbuckers but just about perfect on an edgy single-coil.
Switches 7 and 8 appear to reproduce the effects of different microphone placements; Speaker Edge gives a harder sound (perhaps that which you would expect from moving the mic out from the centre of the cone?), and Close Miking attempts to give the proximity-effect bass lift of a cardioid shoved right up against the front of the cabinet. I preferred Speaker Edge on all the time and Close Miking off, for the latter strangled the sound a little too much in my opinion.
Obviously there are more than enough genuinely effective parameters here for the user to customise the sound quite extensively. Indeed, that perhaps is the only frustrating thing about the Sansamp; changing the sound significantly involves fiddling about with the DIP switches again, which is not always the most convenient thing to do either with fingernails or the side of a pick. This unit is capable of several significantly different tonal voices, not just subtle variations on the same one; it seems a waste of its true versatility to not make them more readily accessible.
Using a Strat with the Sansamp DI'ed straight into the desk's line input, despite the total absence of ambience, the sound is instantly 'alive' with the vibrant character that distinguishes the best amplifiers. It something that guitar players almost feel rather than hear, and when it's there you just don't want to stop playing. Balancing input gain against output allows a full range of sounds between 'glassy clean' with a hint of edge, to the singing sustain of a flat-out 'everything on eleven' setting. The subtle complexity of the 'in-between' sounds are always more difficult however, but here too the Sansamp is strong. A fundamentally clean sound which goes into 'grind' whenever you hit it hard or play more than one note, is easily achieved.
Unlike some units, there is no obvious 'distortion threshold', and response to volume control operation is reasonably natural. Some very pleasing warm but clean sounds can also be achieved with humbucker-equipped guitars; something not all DI pre-amps can lay claim to. Creating synthesized guitar sounds by DI'ing a synth through the Sansamp is not as successful as with one of the Sholtz (Rockman) units; there is something about the synthetic nature of the Rockman distortion that seems to make it uniquely suited to this application.
On sound quality alone, the Sansamp deserves to be taken very seriously indeed. If you try one out at low volume, and completely dry, you may be only moderately impressed. However, with just enough ambience to sound like it belongs in the real world, and sufficient level in the monitoring to interact with the guitar, you will feel a remarkably authentic replication of that sensitivity to touch that I thought only a good valve amp could give. Of the recommended settings provided, I preferred the 'regular Marshall' set-up to the 'Hot-rodded Marshall', but that may only be personal taste; they are both spectacularly successful simulations and I have never heard anything come as close in an A/B comparison.
The ultimate DI sound is the Holy Grail for the recording guitarist, but amplified sound and distortion voicing is such a personal matter that no single unit will probably ever be able to satisfy everybody. With virtually nothing to look at inside, I can't tell you how or why this should work better than anything else, but to my ears, the Sansamp is a significant step nearer to that goal . Forget the fact that it doesn't rack and needs batteries or an external supply, and can't be remote switched, just listen to it!
Tech 21 Sansamp £178 inc VAT.
Klondyke Trading Co., (Contact Details)
Review by Dave Lockwood
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