In recent months, I have been faced with a predicament. It’s a situation familiar to any hard rock guitarist who lives in a cramped city, but loves the power of the high-gain, 50 or 100 watt half stack. On the one hand, nothing feels and sounds better than the rush of volume and tone cranking out of 4 12-inch speakers at blistering levels. On the other hand, if you rely on public transit to take you to the gig, packing up your favorite head and 4×12 are not an option. I needed to find a solution to this dilemma, and found it in the form of the newest head from Hughes & Kettner: the TubeMeister.
The TubeMeister is the latest in the recent trend towards lower wattage heads, however this amp seems to be designed with the hard rock/classic metal guitarist in mind. It’s an 18-watt all-tube head that provides tones similar to those of some classic higher wattage monsters. I decided to take it for a test drive for a weekend of rehearsals, gigs, and recording. Simply put, I was far from disappointed.
Hughes and Kettner have always been at the forefront of mixing modern amp technology and classic tone. In terms of design, they are very in tune with the needs of working guitarists. The TubeMeister represents that long-running philosophy, at a lower volume than we’ve come to expect from H&K. Physically, this amp is very portable. It weighs about 15 lbs, and comes with a sturdy bag that includes a pocket big enough for a few cables and 1 or 2 small pedals. It sure beats carrying your 100-watt Marshall on the subway. Physical qualities aside, the most impressive thing about this amp is the tone, and its set of features.
The amp is powered by 2 EL84 power tubes, as well as 2 12AX7 preamp tubes. It also has particularly large transformers, considering the chassis’ compat size. This may be why this thing is so damn loud!
The front panel is very simple. It includes 2 channels (Clean and Lead), and a Lead Boost that kicks things up to searing gain. The channels and boost can be controlled with an optional FS-2 footswitch. Each channel has its own Gain and Master knobs, and are run through a 3-band EQ. Nothing fancy here.
The rear panel is where the Hughes and Kettner design ingenuity creeps in. It features an effects loop, a built-in power attenuator, and H&K’s famous Red Box DI Out which allows for direct output to a PA or recording setup. The attenuator allows you to switch between 18 watts, 5 watts, 1 watt, and Speaker Off Mode. In other words, you can get cranked tone out of it without having to shake the walls of your apartment building. But enough about the specs. Let’s rock this thing.
The night I took this out of the ProAudioStar offices, I went straight to rehearsal with my band Grande. At most venues and studios in NYC, there is usually a house cabinet. I plugged it into a random no-name 4×12 they had at Rivington Studios, and let her warm up. The first thing I noticed was how cool the TubeMeister looks. Like its larger siblings, the Duotones and TriAmps, the TubeMeister illuminates bright blue when the power is turned on. It doesn’t make it sound any better, but who cares? It never hurts when your gear looks totally sweet.
Then it was onto playing. The first thing that struck me was just how loud this thing was. Granted, it’s not as loud as my 100-watt Ampeg VL-1002, but it still moved some air. I checked out the Clean channel first, with the Master up and the Gain down. It was pretty clean, but you need to get the gain up a bit higher if you want some real volume. When you do crank the gain, you start to get a tone reminiscent of a Hiwatt or a Plexi. I put my BYOC Shredder pedal in front of it, and I was off in to Randy Rhoads territory.
The Lead Channel is really where the TubeMeister stands out. A lot of similar low-powered heads lack the kind of depth and chunk that metalheads like me ache for, most of them offering a more vintage, bluesy tone. While this amp does that type of tone very well, it also excels in higher gain situations. My first instinct was to crank the Master and Gain to see how gnarly it got. At that setting, you get a great saturated tone, where individual chord notes rings out, but the chord as a whole has great depth. I would rate its gain level as similar to a Marshall JCM800, but with an overall thicker tonality. Pull back on the Gain, and you get straight up 70’s style hard rock tones a la Kiss, AC/DC, Bad Company, etc. Turn on the Lead Boost, and you get tons of saturation, more suitable for modern styles of metal and lead guitar. It adds a bit of mid-boost, and enough gain and sustain to please anyone who has a penchant for shredding.
The following night, I brought the Tubemeister to my gig at the Delancy in NYC’s Lower East Side. I was playing in the house band, covering Ozzy Osbourne tunes. I got on stage, plugged the TubeMeister into the house Peavey 4×12, and started dialing in. It wasn’t long after that the sound guy asked me to turn down! He thought I was going to be too loud for the 150-capacity club. That may have been the highest compliment for this amp. While 18 watts may not sound like that much power, this thing still manages to put out some serious decibels. If you are playing at a venue where you are going to be miked up, the TubeMeister is plenty loud for on-stage monitoring as well as reaching the crowd. Depending on the size of the venue, you may not need a mic at all. Did I mention it looks super sweet? Anyway, the gig went well, my Les Paul sounded great through its new friend, and all was well. After the gig, I packed the head back in the bag, and took a cab home. It felt nice being able to have everything I needed (guitar, pedals, cables, strap, etc.) in two light bags. I could get used to this.
So for me, the deal maker is the inclusion of the Red Box DI Out. As such, I was anxious the morning after the Ozzy set to check out this feature. The Red Box is an industry standard DI made specially for guitar. Aside from giving you a balanced XLR output, it also emulates a speaker cabinet. While there are many awesome software amp simulators these days, nothing sounds better than running your guitar through an all-tube signal path. The feel and tone are second to none.
I have included some various audio samples below, using my Les Paul Custom with different amp settings and pickups. I ran the Red Box into my Focusrite Saffire 6 USB, into Logic 9. (Please note that if you are going to use the direct out without having a cabinet plugged in, you will have to put the Power Attenuator to “Speaker Off” mode. Otherwise, you run the danger of blowing the output transformer, and therefore not being able to make beautiful riffage.) I didn’t use any pedals or plug-ins, as I wanted to display the tonality of the TubeMeister, as well as the coolness of the Red Box. My only complaint was that at higher Gain and Master settings, the Pad on my Saffire was still not enough to keep it from clipping at times. When that happened, I just turned the Master down, and still managed to get some cool tones. Check them out.
Hughes and Kettner have done it again. They never seem to fail when it comes to knowing what the gigging guitarist looks for in an amp, and the TubeMeister is an excellent example. If you’re like me, and love huge wall-of-sound type of guitar tone, the TubeMeister definitely does the trick. On top of that, it’s the perfect solution for any guitarist who needs a big sound from a portable package. If you want to get one for yourself, hit us up at ProAudioStar.com. Until next time, PLAY LOUD!!!!