Roland Bolt 60, Spirit 10, Keyboard Cube.
BOLT 60: £449
Probably the best known of all Roland amplifiers is the famous Jazz Chorus series — the first amps to feature a built-in chorus. It's so well known that we're not going to say another word about it here. Not one.
Instead, let's pluck three models from the rest of the catalogue. The first is a surprise. After years of pioneering the developments of transistors, integrated circuits and computer instrument technology, the Japanese firm produced... a valve amplifier. Maybe it isn't so much of a shock. Valves are still incredibly popular with guitarists in terms of sound, and possibly one upmanship. The Bolt allows both.
Two 6L6 RCA bottles run the power amp section, while a 12AT7 assists the pre-amp. Inside the adequate but unassuming chipboard cab is a 12in Roland speaker and an OC Electronics reverb spring bearing the legend "Manufactured by beautiful girls in Milton Wis. under controlled atmosphere conditions". Face it, where else do you get this sort of vital technical information, eh?
Roland put most of the sockets on the front panel including hi and low inputs, footswitch outlets for reverb and overdrive, an effects loop and headphone out. The power and standby switches are racked in the top right-hand corner of the dark grey panel which lurks above a brown and black speaker cloth.
The input section is split into Overdrive and Normal. Overdrive has three controls; two for stages of the pre-amp, the third for master level. Just one volume for Normal, but the footswitch lets you chop between channels.
Let's start with Normal, and it's an excellent beginning. The amp's natural tone is warm, vibrant and sympathetic to every guitar nuance. The three band EQ section isn't that strong, but it only needs to make minor adjustments to an already gutsy and commanding sound.
Overdrive gives you plenty of variety. With the first pre-amp level up and the second low it's a smooth, creamy fuzz; sweet for muted lead lines. Swing them around and you're into thrash chord territory. The Bolt 60 is a squat little chap and tilting it back or putting it on a chair helps the treble and the poke.
One of the real tests of a distortion circuit is whether it can straddle that border between a feint crackling edge to your playing and over the top fuzz. The Bolt could. A big sound.
Only one major criticism. The 60w rating is over ambitious, a comment I've also heard about the 30w version, though the 100w apparently has more loudity.
KEYBOARD CUBE: £325
Roland have had the Cube series running for a while (usually in restrained colours such as tangerine) and as the name would imply they're tubby, square shaped items.
This silver 60 watter is a special for keyboard players — not too remarkable a move considering Roland's major interest in life.
Synth owners are faced by the problem of extremes. Their instruments are capable of very high and very low frequencies. Many amps crumble under the onslaught as the speakers attempt to handle both extremes at once.
The Cube's solution is to fit a 12in speaker and a miniature horn in the same cab. The results are well preserved treble (harpsichord sounds remain clear and sparkling) and distinct bass lines. And lo and behold, you can play both of them at once and they don't get in each other's way. The lowest bass pedal notes are beyond the reach of the 12in cone, but this is an 18in high portable combo, not a PA system.
Both channels have built-in attenuators that come into play when the volume controls are pulled upwards. Even my loudest of synths at full power couldn't make the Cube sweat.
There's a wide range on the tone controls and an almost embarrassingly long sustain on the reverb. Like the rest of the Cubes, the electronics are fitted into a slot at the rear of the cab, set down into its top surface. The back is completely enclosed, apart from an exit for the hardwired mains lead, and a small second panel, half-way down the rear, holds A and B recording out sockets, an effects loop, headphone and ext speaker sockets, the fuse holder and a flimsy mains switch.
The speaker cloth covers the front, and is edged by a chrome trim. Peering in through the back you can see that the speaker and horn are separated by an extra baffle and the circuit is all on a single board. Here's proof that Roland have got their production line taped.
To keep up the macho appearance, the back of the speaker baffle has been sprayed black — but only on the patch that will show up through the hole for the mains cable. Why waste it elsewhere? That's planning.
They have made mistakes. The reverb spring hasn't a shred of damping. At the slightest movement it clangs deafeningly at full volume and the level control makes no difference.
And I can't understand why they should mount the control panel backwards. With the speaker facing you — surely the most logical position — the knobs are inverted. You have to walk round the back to read them. Also 60 watts is a very generous estimation. About 40 would be closer the mark.
But it's an excellent idea, perhaps on the expensive side, but works very well. At last, I can hear what I am playing... all of it.
SPIRIT 10: £99
Away down the other end we have the Spirit 10, the smallest in the Roland all transistorised range, yet still boasting normal and overdrive sockets, pre and master volumes, three band EQ, line out and headphone sockets (the last invaluable for home practice). It's 10 watts, if you hadn't guessed.
The cab is a mere 13in across, so probably feels bloated with the 8in speaker that's been fitted. Small cab, biggish cone makes the Spirit boxy and half-hearted around the bass frequencies, yet allows it to handle a surprising amount of volume and amp distortion without breaking up.
It tends to be harsh kerangy stuff, and the 10 probably wouldn't know the meaning of the word delicacy if you branded it across its forehead, but it could kick out the watts. Chair standing helps again.
As a studio or home practice amp it doesn't have the tonal versatility to score high marks at low volume, and it's too quiet for stage. Still I suppose if you're practising with some mates in a hall away from the neighbours, the Spirit could just get you above the drummer, providing he's at the other end of the room.
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