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Great and Small: Guitar Amplifier Footprints Shrink, While Functionality Expands

Christian Wissmuller • July 2019Roundtable • July 10, 2019

In an issue from a few years past, MMR specifically shone a light on so-called “lunchbox amplifiers” – truly diminutive units that can fit in a courier bag, but which boast enough power to be more than sufficient as a gigging amp on all but the largest club or bar stages (think Orange’s Tiny Terror, which arguably began the trend).

This year, when reaching out to some of the bigger names in guitar amp design, we weren’t expressly aiming to examine the whole “small is beautiful” angle, but that is absolutely the main takeaway from our July Roundtable. Between the challenges of living in ever-more-modest (and, by necessity, quieter) urban apartments, carting gear to shows, and wanting an amplifier that is equally well suited to both the bedroom and the stage, guitarists and bassists – even when not looking for something quite as teeny as a lunchbox amp – are more and more seeking out compact, yet sufficiently loud and feature-rich, product.

What are your hottest models of amplifier at the moment?

Luke Green: The new Marshall Studio range launched in January and it is proving very popular – we have had to grow the workforce in our UK factory to keep up with global demand. Artists and new players alike have fallen in love with the iconic Marshall tones in lower wattage models. They truly encompass the spirit of Marshall and make the famous sounds more accessible. Eden’s Terra Nova bass amplifiers continue to be a popular. They offer super clean, high-fidelity sounds in lightweight units. They are easy to use and have all the features you need for learning, gigging and recording.

Jeff Slingluff: The hottest models from BOSS/Roland right now are the BOSS amplifiers that feature our proprietary amplifier technology called Tube Logic. As they’ve been out the longest, the Katana 50- and 100-Watt models have a very solid user base, but gaining quick attention from a wider group of pro-level players is the newly released Nextone amplifier series.

Brian Piccolo: Our low wattage tube amplifiers are doing very well, specifically Blackstar’s new Studio 10 series which features three models – all 10 watts with a 1×12 speaker. The difference between the models being the tube compliments in each amplifier. You can choose an EL34, 6L6, or KT88 version. We also released a 20W series at WNAMM 2019 that has done incredibly well for us. The flagship model is the HT20RMKII combo which has two channels, 1×12 Celestion speaker and Reverb. It is a very small, compact, and versatile amplifier. It also has a power attenuator that will take the output wattage down to two watts, which is a feature that a lot of players want in amplifiers, as wattages have been trending down over the years. This series also features a compact head and vertical 2×12 cabinet that has been received well by the market. We also have a Jared James Nichols signature model based off the 20W head and vertical 2×12 cabinet that has been very popular with consumers.

Max Gutnik: The Mustang LT25 ($149.99 USD) and Bassbreaker 30R ($899.99 USD) are the two hot models right now. Mustang LT25 is ideal for beginners and students, with a super-simple user interface and a collection of 30 presets covering a wide range of music – a “greatest hits” of electric guitar tones. It produces amazing tones, making it an ideal practice amp for home or office. The Bassbreaker 30R is a 30-watt, all-tube, two-channel amp with additional gain boost and provides amazing clean and medium to high gain distorted tones – with built-in effects loop and a single 12” Celestion® V-Type speaker, the 30R packs a distinctively creamy Bassbreaker punch. We will also be debuting some amazing new amps at Summer NAMM, so stay tuned!

Steve Hendee: Hughes & Kettner’s highly anticipated Black Spirit Combo amp will be available this summer, which follows the Black Spirit head released earlier this year. The Grandmeister tube head continues to be sought after and is reaching legendary status.

Any significant developments – technological, materials used, sizes, et cetera – that have been impacting amp design and sales lately?

JS: Almost three years ago we released the Katana amplifier series, which was the first amplifier we produced that included Tube Logic at a price point accessible to most guitar players. Tube Logic is a proprietary technology that allows BOSS amplifiers to truly deliver the dynamics, feel, and cut-through-a-band capabilities that were formerly only available to traditionally cranked-up tube amplifiers. In November 2019, following the tremendous success of the Katana amplifier, we released the Nextone amplifier series. BOSS Nextone amplifiers take Tube Logic one step further by providing four independent class A/B amplifier sections to the power amp, which allows the amps to not only mimic the tone and feel but also the dynamic interaction of the guitar, amplifier, and speaker as a whole experience, and allows the user to select between four different infamous power tube styles.

MG: Smaller combo amps in the low to medium wattage range are popular, both for solid state and tube amps. We have been doing a lot more exclusive product for the channel with custom tolex and new speaker combinations, too. On the high end, American hand-wired and vintage reissues are still the bread and butter of the line. Classic Fender tone is always in style.

SH: Over the past couple of years, we have seen a trend in smaller, lighter weight amps. Years back, giant stacks were the fashion and dominated stages. Hughes & Kettner’s Black Spirit 200 Combo is branded as a, “Wall of Sound that you can carry with one hand.” As a result, stages are cleaner, most of the technology is built right in to the amp and the amp you use in your bedroom is the same one that you bring to the gig.

BP: Small, compact amplifiers are extremely popular now. Several amplifier companies released low wattage product lines in 2018 and early 2019. In addition to the market wanting smaller, low wattage amplifiers, the advancements in digital amplifier modeling, simulation, and profiling have impacted the traditional amplifier design more so recently than in the past. Like always trends change, and currently, we are seeing less live acts using traditional amplifiers on stage or using amplifiers at all. It has become very common to see bands using a profiler type rig or high-end digital modeling product on tour. Also, software continues to rise in popularity as companies have made advancements in the quality of those types of products.

LG: A lot of players are looking for lower volume and physically smaller units, but with great tonal quality. This brings with it a couple of design challenges – creating the recognised tone and breakup of higher-powered amps using less power and from much smaller chassis and enclosures. We introduced Powerstem technology in the Origin range last year, which works by reducing the voltage rails around the power amplifier rather than using our traditional pentode/triode reduction methods. The new DSL and Studio ranges offer power reduction too. These options give an amp added flexibility – you can use the same gear to practice in your bedroom and to take on stage.

What have you noticed to be some key strategies employed by successful amplifier retailers in terms of promotion, in-store presentation, customer interaction, and so on?

MG: Amps are very experiential, especially if they are not a known quantity like a Hot Rod Deluxe or Twin Reverb. The best dealers have great content online to draw customers in and provide a means to demo the products

SH: For Hughes & Kettner it has been “demo-after-demo.” We directly approach the end user and host in-store events featuring guitar legends, such as Tony McAlpine and local guitar heroes workshopping our amps. Our Hughes & Kettner events at brick & mortar locations are supported by social media, targeted emails, and instore posters and banners.

BP: Some of the most successful strategies we are seeing retailers implement revolve around engaging and informative content that has personality. Nailing their digital identity and working hard to build their stores brand has been extremely impactful to many retailers. On a more basic sales strategy, financing continues to have a major influence on sales. With terms offers of 48 months, it makes products more accessible to the consumer.

JS: One of the big trends in the industry is Reactive Load Attenuators. BOSS just started shipping the WAZA-TAE (Waza Tube Amp Expander), which not only attenuates your amplifier with one of 16 reactive loads, but also adds continuously variable volume, FX Loop, Reverb, Delay, Compression, and footswitch programmability to any cranked-up tube amplifier. And it does this through both the live speaker cabinet and direct out. While traditional retailers are doing extremely well with amplifiers like Katana, which can provide a cranked up experience at any volume, they are also lining up for products like the WAZA-TAE for the traditional tube amp customers – both in terms of providing an extremely useful tool for a modern guitar enthusiast, but also as a powerful in-store sales tool for demonstrating the tube amps they sell. Turns out providing a demo of a cranked-up tube amplifier at a reasonable in-store volume is an extremely valuable sales tool as well.

LG: Brands can build a connection with consumers before they enter their local music store. Digital strategies focusing on engagement and content creation rather than selling and advertising are increasingly successful. Re-vamping our website and social media content to include more unique, engaging, and authentic content has increased our reach and engagement dramatically. We are aiming to be more accessible and inclusive – for example, acknowledging the wider reach and appeal of Marshall beyond the realms of rock and metal. Additionally, the consumer experience doesn’t finish after they leave the store. Customer service and after-sales care are very important to get right. The retailers that have focused on customer care as their strategy and provided a personal, fast, and helpful interaction are becoming more successful.

Are you anticipating any “on the horizon” trends with respect to amps?

SH: We will see a continuation of applying technology to the sound and functionality of the amp. Hughes & Kettner have done an awe-inspiring job of incorporating iPad apps, tone programmability, and authentically giving the player access to more tone choices than ever before.

LG: With the rise of smart technology in our homes, cars, and pockets, consumers expect the same level of integration and control with their music equipment. Marshall’s Code range pairs with your phone or tablet through the Gateway app. This offers almost endless possibilities for experimenting with different presets, effects, and signal paths. The Code range also integrates with MyMarshall, an online platform where players share their presets, which has bought guitarists together and created a community. We are researching and experimenting with including even more smart technology into our future products with the aim of improving the player’s experience. Marshall’s success has always been based on facilitating artists’ expression and creativity, and this is a continuation of that. There is a rising trend for authentic valve products in smaller sizes. This is for people that want the stage sound and tone of professional players in a portable and convenient size and volume. Houses are getting smaller, many people are living in flats, and sound restrictions are getting stricter. So, users need amps that will fit in the space they have without causing problems with their neighbours.

JS: Two things that seem to be the common trend are an aspect of necessity. These are size and volume (loudness). A modern guitar player is increasingly faced with the need to travel small, and at the same time, they are increasingly asked to play more quietly. From apartment living to touring stage bands, these two problems are at the forefront of conversation and are unfortunately at constant odds with a guitar player’s desire to experience the dynamics and feel of a cranked-up amplifier. You’ll continue to see solutions for these challenges in our product lines. From the Katana and Nextone amplifiers which feature a Power Control function, to GT-1000 which is a multi-effects processor that provides extremely dynamic feel through either direct or in conjunction with your amplifier, to our most recent release of the Waza Tube Amp Expander that allows you to use your own tube amp with cranked-up feel but at any volume.

BP: I am expecting the smaller amp trend to continue along with the digital “amp replacement” trend. I think we will see more companies release accessible products in the digital hardware section, and the consumer acceptance of these products will increase as more variety becomes available.

MG: Stages are becoming quieter and cartage is getting more expensive. I think lighter, more versatile amps that don’t compromise quality are where things need to go.

What are your expectations for this market segment in the coming months?

JS: The market seems to be dividing amongst three trends: Affordable combo amplifiers that work well within a band while providing the best dynamic experience like Nextone and Katana, all-in-one multi-effects/amplifier processors like ME-80 and GT-1000, and a resurgence of high-powered tube amplifiers tamed and enhanced by product like the WAZA-TAE.

LG: The digital market is still in its infancy with regards to amps, but it has seen some strong developments over the last few years. In the coming months, this will continue to grow and develop, but there will still be the desire for the analogue/valve amps. Size is becoming increasingly important and we can only see the demand for smaller amps with lower wattage, exceptional tone and performance growing.

MG: We are seeing healthy growth in the segment and see that continuing into next year. Digital/solid state amps account for around 60 percent of the revenue in the segment, so we see more competitors bringing out products in that space. We also see the market for high-end tube and boutique amps continue to grow. With all of the options, it’s an exciting time to be playing guitar.

BP: We are expecting the trends of the past several months continue for 2019. Stable sales of smaller low wattage amplifiers and digital products.

SH: We expect to go from strength to strength as the guitar market is reinvigorated. Hughes & Kettner will continue to be ahead of the curve with technological applications, offering every guitar player access to their dream tone.

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