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EL84 Amps in A Nutshell, or Shall We Say “Tolex-shell”

EDITORIAL NOTE: We are losing Andy Perrin to the dreaded “busy day job.” We want to extend a heartfelt “thank you” for his fantastic reviews of That Pedal Show each week. Kyle Homer, another talented writer and gear addict will be taking the helm. We welcome him aboard with this weeks TPS review. Please give Kyle a warm welcome!

In a world of online forums where diehard fans run rampant, there are some arguments that will always be up for dispute. Choosing a maple or rosewood fingerboard, grabbing a Fender or a Gibson, or even which gauge of electrical wire sounds best in different iterations of a certain pedal will bring us to choose one way or the other. One debate that may never be settled is the style of amp one uses.

This week on TPS Dan & Mick dedicate an entire episode, with a Part 2 discussed, about one half of the epic amp debate: the EL84/Vox-Style line of amplifiers.

EL84 Amps in A Nutshell, or say “Tolex-shell”

With Mick and our resident AC-30 expert Dan on hand, they begin the episode with a disclaimer before diving into the four amps they’ve gathered here for testing.

“Most amps aren’t EL84 amps… and it’s dangerous to hone in on one spec,” Mick warns. With the four amps in rotation (Dan’s ’61 AC30, a current gen AC15, Victory’s new VC35, and a Matchless HC30) all of them need to be taken as a whole rather than picked apart and analyzed for their spec-sheet differences.

Sharing EL84 power tubes, all of these amps claim a certain bell-like chime and twang, or as Dan calls it “interstellar amp magic.” However, they all come from different stages in time. It’s hard to compare an original ’61 AC30 with a smaller, modern amp like the AC15.

Nonetheless, Dan and Mick grab an array of guitars, mixed with a few pedals here and there, and get a sense of what these amplifiers bring to the EL84 conversation.

The Siblings

First to be compared with the ’61 AC30 is the current generation Vox AC15 C-1. Running a Fender Custom Shop ’63 Telecaster, and a Gibson Memphis ’58 335, Mick and Dan first run both amps clean.

“There’s not a huge difference here, but the 30 is much sweeter,” Mick explains. This is most likely due to the Celestion Alnico Blue speakers that reside in the AC30.

To get a bit of clean overdrive, they then run both amps in conjunction with the Analogman Beano Boost, sending the decibel meter well over 102dB. While the AC15 was “more harmonically together” due to the modernized circuit and addition of a master volume, the AC30 captured “a magic quality” the 15 just could not replicate.

The Boutique Big Bang

With the AC15 swapped out for the Victory VC35, Mick and Dan give a brief history of Vox. The duo discuss how the original AC30s were built with EL34 tubes, the same ones that reside in Marshalls, however they didn’t fit due to their height. So it needed to be redesigned with the EL84s.

“Everything good in the music world happened by accident,” Mick added. One thing that didn’t happen by accident though was Matchless catching on to the improvements that Vox amplifiers needed. The “imperfections” that plagued the Vox amps gave light to Matchless, which “birthed the boutique amp scene in the late nineties.”

With that history in mind, Dan rips through both the Victory VC35 as well as the AC30 again in comparison. Both sharing four EL84 tubes, the Victory has a different midrange from the AC30 while sharing the same bell-like charm and attack.

The Student Confronts The Master

Using the power of seamless editing, the Matchless HC30 now sits next to the AC30. With Mick using the ’59 Black Stratocaster he runs through the HC30 as well as the AC30, which reveals very different yet similar tonal qualities.

“The HC30 has a clarity, better headroom and bottom end than the AC30,” Dan explains. “While sharing similar schematics, the HC30 has a Master Volume control as well as an added EF86 preamp tube.”

Dan then runs the ’61 AC30 with an EF86 as well, giving the Matchless and Vox even similar specifications. Running the Beano Boost as well as the Tru-Fi Color Driver through both amps, the EF86 “changes the midrange, and adds sensitivity to the attack” of the AC30. While these two amps are different tonally, the Matchless “doesn’t lose the character of the AC30.”

Mick explains that while all EL84 amps share “familiar territory in overdrive tone and how they are EQ’d, their unique sounds are so different.”

Dan ends the episode with how the three modern amps are all improvements on the AC30, while still having differences as stark as “night and gorgonzola.”

While amp arguments will always ensue, the EL84 amps bring a unique and different portrayal on the British style, keeping the discussion and the learning curve new and exciting.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the EL84 Showdown when Dan and Mick introduce Dr. Z and Morgan Amplifiers into the conversation!

TPS Episode Rig Rundown:

Guitars: Gretsch G6228, Fender American Vintage ’59 Stratocaster, Gibson Memphis ’58 ES-335, Fender Custom Shop ’63 Telecaster

Pedals: Analogman Beano Boost, Tru-Fi Color Driver, Boss DD-200, Meris Mercury

Amps: 1961 Vox AC30 w/Celestion Alnico Blue speakers, Vox AC15 C-1 w/Celestion G12M Greenback, Victory VC35 w/V212-VB cab, Matchless HC-30 w/ Hughes & Kettner Vintage 212/G12M Greenback

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