The Jazz Guitar Chord Dictionary
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  1. #1

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    As we are getting older we all look for lighter weight amps and so do I. So when the Blackstar St. James amps were introduced I was interested.
    My setup is mostly a Gibson ES 330 or Ibanez GB10 through a Fender amp – I have a Blues jr. for small gigs and a Vibrolux for when that's not enough. My sound ideal is Grant Green and Kenny Burrell recorded by Rudy van Gelder through a small Fender tweed or Ampeg amp so basically a round but bright sound with just a little bit of compression and drive ("hair") when I'm digging in and my fender amps deliver. They weight round about 15 and 20 kg – I can carry them OK. They are kind of plug and play (always sound good) – but I ran into situations in which the Blues jr did not have enough headroom and the Vibrolux was too loud when turned up to it's sweet spot. The blues jr. can sound a little brittle and lacking of low frequency content. I have second "career" playing in funk band and use wah and overdrive there.
    A friend of mine has one of these Fender Tone Master Deluxes and while I think the clean tone is great I was not impressed about the tones with a little drive.

    So I was curious how a light weight tube amp would do and when I could buy a return for a little less then 1000 € I ordered it. I got the EL34 version btw. which looks great in its fawn tolex. It has a clean channel, a "moderate" drive channel, 3 band EQ, Master and a digital reverb. The other Version is black, uses 6L6 tubes and has a high gain channel. The combo weights 12.8 kg btw and that feels really light as it is the size of a Fender Hotrod or Deluxe Reverb and you'd expect it to weight like 20 kg. Yet everything feels solid and "high class". It has a lot of "on-top" features, too. I'll write about that later. It's a 50 watts amp btw. so for my applications it will not run out of headroom.

    Light weight is ONE argument in favour of the amp but if it doesn't sound right it's worth nothing.
    And to be honest initially I was not impressed with the tone. With the EQ at noon there's to much low frequency content and even my very precise GB made some resonances around the Ab (d-string, 6th fret) so I thought: OK, I tried it – now I'll return it. Then I remembered that when I get a Hotrod Deluxe or Twin I always dial out the bass so I did that – dialed it back to like 8 or 9 o'clock. And from then on I had a tone. A little tweaking of highs and mids to taste and volume and I could get the tones of Green or Burrell. All right – maybe I should keep it? It also has a volume and a master volume so dialing in a little bit of hair is also easy. Adding just a touch of reverb takes me even closer to the tones on the Rudy van Gelder remastered editions (I think he used digital reverb on these). Now I'm sold. The tone doesn't need the reverb – it's more like icing on the cake if you play in a dry room. I doesn't imitate the brightness of the fender spring reverb, it's more a "room" kind of reverb, warm and clean.
    The pre-amp volume has a lot of headroom btw. so only turned up to 3/4 and more the (loud) P90s in my 330 get a little dirty when digging in. In my funk band I mostly play a tele or a tele with humbuckers and I get nice clean tones for these too adding a little more bass.
    It's totally capable of getting a nice, clean and warm jazz tone, too. So I think it will work well for all the jazz guys who favour that kind of "glove" tones. And the Cry Baby also sounds good into that amp. With 50 watts it should have more than enough headroom for all jazz applications.

    After learning how to dial it in I get nice crunch tones from the dirt channel too. They also clean up very well and there's also a 10 db boost available. I'm not that keen on distortion but need it in the funk band sometime. I'll see how I like that when playing blues and funk next time.

    Now to the modern features:
    There's a switch for the power amp (I think technically there's a built in attentuator?) that switches between 50 watts (full), "Sag" and 2 watts. switching down from 50 watts you'll get less headroom and more compression and in 2 watt mode it's easier to dial in apartment friendly levels with the master. It's still louder than you'd expect at 2 watts. I think this feature will be nice for the blues rock guys who look for power amp distortion?
    There's an XLR and 1/4 inch direct out with speaker simulation. I did a recording before learning that there are 3 flavours of speaker simulation available and you can do quiet recording by switching the amp into stand by mode. In the room the real speaker to me sounds better than the simulations played through my Motu 8pre and Genelec monitors. There's a software available to tweak simulations. I did not get into that yet but will definately check that out later and give my thoughts on that. For now it's easier to just use my sennheiser 609.
    There's a USB port used to tweak the speaker simulations and also to use the amp as an audio interface in your DAW. Didn't try that yet but it may be handy.
    The effects loop works will with my ditto looper I guess it will work just fine for delays, chorus, phasers and stuff like that.

    My 2 cents:
    Pretty and lightweight amp that – although it is marketed towards rock players – is capable of dialing in very nice tones for jazz – from the brighter tones of Benson, Green and Burrell to "glove-tone". Very good EQ makes it easy to dial in versatile tone (once I realized that there's so much bass available) and a nice digital reverb can be the icing on the cake.
    The modern features are nice to have IMHO I see them as extras – I don't really need them but they may come in handy in some situations.
    Last edited by guavajelly; 12-04-2022 at 08:21 AM.

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    The Jazz Guitar Chord Dictionary
     
  3. #2

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    Nice review, I'm thinking about this amp too.

  4. #3

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    I hear good things about the BlackStar Sonnet acoustic amps. This is a company with serious audio engineers.

  5. #4

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    That's a great review! You can swap those El-34 with 6CA7 if you ever want a tone closer to 6L6. Hard to beat 50 watts of tube power for sound.

  6. #5

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    Amazing amps! And what a simple innovation: You don’t need a 5 kg power transformer to get some voltage these days anymore when You got a switch mode power supplies around.

    How Blackstar ditched the mains transformer to make the St James series the lightest 50-watt valve amps ever | Guitar.com | All Things Guitar

    Very interesting, thanks for the thorough review!

  7. #6

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    Thanks Herbie, that's an interesting read.

  8. #7

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    The use of switching power supplies in musical instrument amplifiers goes back to the pioneering work of Walter Woods in the early 1970s.
    Rock-sturdy; still gigging fifty years on. The gold standard for warm, authentic tone. Under ten pounds.
    Gigged by artists including Jim Hall, Chick Corea, Steve Swallow and every double-bassist you can name who played in the late 1970s and 1980s.

    The original early-70s "Ice Cream Sandiwch" 50W model:



    The all-time classic MI-100-8 -- the 70s gold standard.
    (I've used WW MI-series amps on every DB gig for thirty years. My bass, but louder!)





    Credit to Blackstar for applying switching power to tube amps, but it's not like they just invented the wheel !

  9. #8

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    An interesting article on the subject. Although more focused on hi-fi amps, I guess most of it applys to guitar amps too.

    Audio Myth - "Switching Power Supplies are Noisy" - Benchmark Media Systems

  10. #9

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    MI 100-8 was also used by Tal, Barney Kessel, Charlie Byrd, Herb Ellis, John Patatucci, Ray Brown, Lionel Hampton, many others. On the Great Guitars at the Winery cover you can see the little red boxes on top of the Twins they used as speakers.
    The fact that Walter managed a switching power supply patented in June 1975 in that technology was a major miracle. Ala Dumble, the MI 100-8 schematic shows a blank box labeled “switching power supply”))). Today it’s an off the shelf item.
    Hi Sam!
    jk

  11. #10

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    I think Carver utilized this for home audio in some way back in the 70s/80s?