Dynacord MIDI Amplifier
The marriage of valve and MIDI technology in Dynacord's Reference 500 guitar amplifier results in an astonishingly good design as Ian Gilby discovered.
Offering 16 user-programmable memories with remote selection of programs under the command of MIDI, the Dynacord Reference 500 amplifier breaks new ground and could easily become a standard piece of studio equipment. Ian Gilby checks it out.
Valve amps? MIDI? Hold on a minute, there must be something wrong, surely?
As unlikely as it may seem, the marriage of tube technology and digital technology has produced one extremely interesting - and certainly unique - offspring: the Dynacord Reference Series amplifiers. The full range covers both combos and amp heads but we've chosen to look at the handy 19" rack-mounting version - the Reference 500.
Disregarding for one moment the inclusion of MIDI and memories, the Dynacord Reference 500 can still be treated and operated as a conventional (non-programmable) valve amplifier just like any Marshall. You just switch on, wait 15 seconds for the valves to warm up and when the display reads both zeros you can get out the denims, crank up the volume and boogie!
The range of sounds obtainable is pretty diverse due to the well thought out facilities on offer. The combination of Drive and Input volume lets you overload the preamp stage by varying degrees to generate anything from a silky, smooth Robert Fripp lead sound to an approximation of a buzz-saw. A clever inclusion is the rear panel rotary spindle Damping control, which functions somewhat like a 'power soak' in that it can create the audible effect of a guitar stack on full blast but at a very low Master Volume setting. Simulating the typical 'Rockman' sound is a cinch with this! Just what's required for recording really.
The EQ is about par for the course in terms of tonal range, offering Bass, Mid, Treble and Presence controls with around 15dB of cut or boost. (So why the 1 to 10 graduations on the knobs?)
Reinforcing my belief that this rack-mounted amplifier could well find a home in many pro studios, is the inclusion of a line level balanced XLR ouput (600 ohm, +6dBm) on the rear panel, making for easy direct injection of guitar sounds into a mixing desk.
There are front panel controls for reverb level plus external effects send level. Three pairs of send/return jacks are available on the rear also for patching in three external effects devices - nice and comprehensive.
A useful 65 watts of power output is available driving into 8 ohms and provision has been made on the rear for connecting two external speakers, whilst a selector handles impedance matching for 4,8 or 16 ohms.
Dynacord's Reference 500 amp is what's known as a passive MIDI unit in that it only receives MIDI program change information (via its rear panel MIDI In socket) and re-transmits it unchanged (via MIDI Thru).
With this configuration, you can, for example, have a song stored in a MIDI sequencer (QX7 say) which sends one or more program change requests to the amplifier's MIDI Into select new guitar sounds at pre-programmed points in a song, whilst automatically and simultaneously switching programs on a MIDI controlled effects unit connected to the Dynacord's Thru socket. Neat eh? Now there is no real excuse for putting up with the same guitar sound throughout your song.
This also offers a damned good way of saving valuable tape tracks and reducing the amount of effects juggling when recording. Two of the four internal 'special programs' accessed from the front panel function buttons allow you to modify the MIDI reception status (Omni or Poly mode) and MIDI reception channel (only in Poly mode). On power up, the amp defaults to Omni mode, which means it makes no difference which MIDI channel is used to transmit program change instructions to the Dynacord - it'll accept and understand them regardless. However, you can programme the amplifier to receive on one specific MIDI channel if required and your selection will be remembered only whilst there is power to the unit.
16 onboard memory locations allow you to store whatever combination of front panel control settings you have selected, apart from Master Volume, which makes a lot of sense. It avoids unnecessary ear-ache.
This is done, once you've got the sound you want, by pressing Store (the LED illuminates), then choosing the memory location number (01-16) with the Up/Down buttons causing the LED to flash. Pressing Store and Go momentarily extinguishes the LED until the location number constantly illuminates to tell you that you have successfully memorised your sound. Turning the amp off now, thankfully, will not erase the memories - so there's no need to waste time before a session or gig re-programming your sounds.
The good thing about the memories, naturally, is the variety of sound instantly at your disposal; the bad thing is trying to remember what sound is stored where. Don't fret though. On the Reference Series amps you can enter a special program mode easily which will permit you to step through and display the stored value of each of the eight programmable control knobs beginning with the Drive control and moving left to right by pressing the Go button. This makes it an easy process to quickly jot down your amp setting on paper for a particular sound if you intend to programme more sounds than the 16 memories can retain. But most guitarists I know use only two different sounds anyway - lead and rhythm!
The range of each knob is 0-63. Disregard the 0-10 legends around the front panel knobs - they're there purely as a visual aid if the amp's used conventionally and don't correspond to any set value. I had Drive and Volume positioned on number 5, for instance, yet their digital values read 40 and 50 respectively! Nevertheless, each control value can be varied in a precise enough manner by turning the relevant knob slowly for accurate single step increment.
At any time you can override the program setting in memory by manually adjusting the knob (without upsetting the stored value), but some confusion arises because the position indicated by the knob caps don't necessarily comply with the sound you're hearing. This is especially disconcerting when you want to boost the Presence, say, on a particular program but the knob is already turned fully clockwise from its previous setting. It's not really a criticism, more an indication that you have to be aware of how the device functions. I got used to this editing system pretty quickly and found it to be ultimately very flexible.
If you don't have access to MIDI equipment, programs can still be stepped remotely up or down via Dynacord's FS50 add-on footswitch unit that plugs into its own rear panel jack socket. Alternatively, specific programs may be selected by number using MIDI from another extra footswitch device - the Dynacord MIDI Memory Controller.
I take my hat off to Dynacord; in the Reference 500 they've created a real gem of a product that is tailor-made for the modern studio. Valve amps have always remained popular with guitarists regardless of the different music they play and now it's feasible for them to join their keyboard colleagues in the control room. With a Reference 500, you can plug in, feed the line output direct to the mixing desk and have it coming out of the control room monitors at any level you need to get the adrenalin flowing for a good performance. But without the fear of feedback!
The inclusion of MIDI shows true foresight on Dynacord's part and it's down to the individual to make the best use of its applications. Personally I'm glad it's there. The question is: are you prepared to spend £800 (inc VAT) to have it?
However much I love this amp, I can't help thinking that it will suffer because to a guitarist, the sound of an amp is as personal as that of the guitar he plays, and the majority of players are pretty conservative when it comes to their choice of equipment. Perhaps this is the product to change all that?
Details on the full range of Dynacord Reference Series MIDI amplifiers is available from Dynacord dealers or direct from the UK distributors: (Contact Details)
Review by Ian Gilby
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