Most of the classic guitar tones from days of yore revolve around a massive tube amp being pushed to within an inch of its life. Indeed, back in the day, cranking your amp to 11 was often the only way of getting the best sounds out of your – almost literally – sagging amp. These days, though, it’s a different story, with master volume-equipped amps offering preamp gain instead of power amp sag, and now with Black Spirit 200, there’s a game-changing new sag machine in town! And best of all, it won’t make you go deaf either…
Every time I come back from a run in the woods, I feel happy – delightfully drained, sweaty yet satisfied, bushed but blissful, pooped yet pleased, out of gas but on cloud nine.
I could go on, but you catch my drift.
If you enjoy the occasional jog around the neighborhood or backlot pickup game, you may have pondered that weird contradiction of exhaustion paired with elation.
What is it about pushing hard at the limits that brings out the best in us?
Maybe it’s those endorphins and endocannabinoids give us that natural high.
Or maybe it’s something else, something like Voltaire was saying when he muttered those Zen-like words: “The best is the enemy of the good”.
The magic of cranking your amp
Whatever it is, the magic that happens at the borderline of the doable is part of the human experience.
When we start feeling good about being out on the lunatic fringe, it’s all down to biology.
When something similar happens in a tube-fired guitar amp, it’s down to physics.
And the first law of guitar amp thermodynamics is that you have to push an amp hard to get smokin’ sounds.
At least that’s the way it was when bell-bottom trousers flapping in front of speaker stacks was the only way the rock gods rolled.
Everything louder than everyone else
Back when rock guitar playing was a visceral experience and VOLUME in big, bold capital letters was de rigueur, the unofficial guide to great tone only had two rules:
- Crank the volume to 10 (or 11 for the Nigel Tufnels of the world) and it will get loud.
- Crank the volume to 10 and your tone will get good.
That kind of volume may have sent small animals scurrying for cover and the neighbors in search of shotguns, but it also made the amp more touch-sensitive, responsive, smoother, and somehow more musical.
It was as if the angel of amplification had descended from tone heaven to breathe life into an inanimate object.
Suddenly, the amp was animate and eager to assist your efforts to emote like Nicolas Cage hogging the scene in some B-movie.
What is power amp sagging?
This sagging effect is down to inefficient tube rectifiers.
They just can’t keep up with the constant demand for full-on power.
The output voltage drops – that’s the infamous sag that yields such lovely tube compression.
As the rectifier recovers and the voltage climbs back up, you get that bloom that players go on and on about.
There’s that sports analogy again – push as hard as you can and good things will happen.
When the amp is balancing on the tipping point to meltdown and the power output is at the pain threshold of normal human beings, that’s when sound feels like something physical flying off your fingertips.
At the risk of piling on the cheese, that’s sort of what the whole rock ‘n’ roll idea is all about – living on the edge!
And by the way, we previously wrote in more detail on this topic right here.
Pushing your amp to the limit
How ironic, then, that all this sound and fury is the ultimate expression of puniness rather than power.
It’s actually down to a struggling component’s inability to keep up with the unrelenting demand for power.
This weakness would inform – no, dominate – the signature sounds of iconic 60s, 70s and 80s music styles.
The electric guitar – that phallic emblem of youth and virility – sounded best with a sagging amp. I’ll spare you all the many off-color jokes that come to mind here.
Preamp gain versus power amp sag
Back in the day, most recording studios relegated amps, or at least the speakers, to isolated soundproofed rooms, so obscene levels of volume were not a problem for the folks behind the glass.
But when the master volume knob arrived on amps, it served up all the distortion anyone could wish for – at room volume.
The downside is that all this grit comes from the preamp.
This low-power stage serves up oodles of gain without a struggle, so there’s no sagging to be had at the front end.
This marked the birth of that sterile 80s high-gain sound.
On the upside, playing the electric guitar was now much easier on the ears and internal organs as the volume levels dropped.
On the downside, those goosebumps moments when one was one with a sagging amp were history.
I mean, just look at how excited this lot were to be able to actually crank and experience the full wrath of a vintage Plexi for once:
Sagging comes from amps, not FX pedals
This effect is not easily copied, for it is far more than just an amalgam of compression, distortion, EQ and dynamic modulation unique to each player/amp combination.
Perhaps this is why most attempts to mimic the response of a sagging amp in floor pedals have fallen short of the mark – at least that’s been my experience.
Some of you will disagree, pointing to this or that cherished pedal.
And more power to you, but in defense of my opinion, I give you this: if we look at sagging as a separable effect, we have to consider where it belongs in the signal chain.
It’s pretty much the last thing the signal sees before it hits the loudspeaker, so that’s where the effect needs to go – in and not in front of the amp.
Now for the final ironic twist in this piece: Hughes & Kettner has come up with a way to build sagging into the award-winning Black Spirit 200… the irony being that this is most definitely NOT a tube amp.
Get your sag on with Black Spirit 200
If the interweb had a Speaker’s Corner, I’d take the stand and loudly proclaim that its sagging is indistinguishable from that of a true tube amp – that’s how well this amp nails the effect.
It gives you eight different levels to choose from, so you can dial in just the right amount of sag for each sound, be it clean or high gain.
It’s like the ultimate spice – nearly everything sounds sweeter with a dash of sag.
You can nail that Hendrix thing with a sound that occupies the middle ground between fat clean and crispy crunch:
You can dial in the sag of a stack on the verge of meltdown.
Or you can put some muscle into your squeaky-clean Tele-driven country twang:
The unique combination of its Sagging feature and Spirit Tone Generator (read more about that genius invention here!) lends Black Spirit 200 true tube flavor.
Lots of tube amps offer authentic tube sound, but how many are as versatile as this?
How many can deliver all that cool tone at any volume level?
And how many let you store those sounds in combination with eight different cabinet types, as you can with the revolutionary Red Box AE+ DI output?
I wonder what Jimi would have had to say about the Black Spirit 200. Perhaps: “Are you experienced”?
First published: April 26 2019. Most recent update: April 26 2019.