Tech21 SansAmp Guitar Preamp
Once you get the hang of where to put the mic or mics, recording an electric guitar in a room with a combo at full volume is a relatively painless affair — after all, you don't necessarily have to be in the studio with the guitarist, do you? However, the majority of us don't have a sound-proofed area, and it's a tolerant neighbour who's happy to hear you going through the 20th take of a tricky, over-driven solo at 3 o'clock in the morning. Of course, some of us haven't got the room to keep the recording apparatus separate from the guitar, either. Hence, a small, but dedicated, section of the recording equipment industry has spent a good deal of R&D time trying to come up with electronic approximations of hot valves, flapping speakers and distortion. It would be fair to say that no system so far has totally succeeded to the satisfaction of every guitarist or engineer, although some creditable new effects have been born in the meantime.
Tech 21 are one of these maverick concerns, based in New York City. Their Sansamp is a major attempt to recreate the warm rich tones of valves, but with some novel solid state electronics. The technology is so novel that if you take the back off the unit, you'll be confronted by an anonymous lump of plastic. But it is this lump that takes the Sansamp far beyond the floor-mounted stomp box that it appears to be.
The Sansamp combines a versatile guitar preamp with a speaker simulator, enabling the guitarist to get a miked amp type of sound direct to tape. Apparently the designer built a FET miniature equivalent of a push/pull valve guitar amp, then had it manufactured as a thick film hybrid, which makes quantity manufacture cheap and also helps prevent the circuit being copied.
The guitar goes into the Sansamp, the Sansamp goes into the mixer or portastudio — simple! What's more, it works.
Physically, there's not a lot to the Sansamp: in addition to the bypass footswitch, there are four (more or less) self explanatory knobs, labelled Presence Drive (which shapes the pre-amp contours of the upper mid range), Amp Drive (shapes power amp contours), Output and High (a final EQ control). But the really important controls are less obvious — the middle of the unit hosts a set of eight tiny DIP switches which alter the tonal characteristics of the preamp, giving it the capacity to simulate various types of amplifier and speaker cabinet. These are labelled Mid-boost I, Mid-boost II, Low Drive, Clean Amp, Bright Switch, Vintage Tubes, Speaker Edge and Close Miking. By using the various combinations, it is possible to produce 256 different basic amplifier characteristics which can be further modified using the rotary controls. Finally, there's a three-way switch on the side labelled Lead, Normal and Bass, which offers two guitar voicings plus one also suitable for use with bass guitar. While the DIP switches may seem a little inconvenient, Tech 21 expect the guitarist to find a general setting, and not need to change it drastically during the course of a gig. The small size of the switches shouldn't be too much of a problem in a studio situation, but as there are so many good sounds in there, I didn't want to leave them set in one position for too long.
Power is supplied by a 9V battery or an external supply and the low current drain should ensure a long battery life. Providing you unplug your guitar lead from the unit after use, the power is automatically switched off, while changing the battery simply involves unscrewing and removing the back plate. The manual provides several sample settings that aim for known sounds — Vintage Hot-wired Marshall, Hiwatt, Mesa Boogie and so on. Not having examples of the relevant amps to hand, I can't really comment on their accuracy, but they all have a different, musical character and they're all definitely useful.
I found that the Sansamp had a general sort of close-miked, middly, 70s, no ambience feel — some reverb added during the mix is essential. It also has the ability to make the guitar sound loud, even when it isn't, which is vital in rock music production. Putting the Sansamp through a guitar amp in a room brought the unit even more credit, and it is quite capable of some seriously heavy sounds, a la Nirvana; lead sounds with real body and sustain are easy to achieve. To my discredit, during the review I obtained a setting that seemed to replicate a George Harrison rhythm sound (a la Hard Day's Night — I'd just seen the re-run on TV), but I didn't make a note of the settings. Anyway, using the clues in the manual and your ears, it should be an easy job to replicate pretty well any sort of sound from clean rhythm, through blues to very aggressive rock. It also produces some pretty mean bass guitar sounds, especially distorted ones. One test I always give such units is the sampled or synthesized guitar patch test. After adding a touch of reverb, the result was pretty convincing, as were sampled bass sounds, though some of my dodgy loops seemed to be emphasised by the effect.
Sansamp isn't the only recording guitar preamp on the market, but it is one of the few affordable, no-frills units that can come up with a convincing guitar sound rather than using onboard effects to gloss over a mediocre overdrive sound. I think you'll be impressed — I was.
Tech 21 Sansamp £178 including VAT.
Klondyke Trading Company, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
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