Analog Solid State Amps With Great OD / Dirty Channels

11 Gauge

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I know of plenty of analog SS amps that either have great clean channels or make great pedal platforms. But when it comes to SS amps that make great dirty or overdriven sounds, I personally know of not as many.

In all honesty, probably the last SS amp I had, that was all analog, and had a great OD channel was my mid-80's Peavey Stereo Chorus 400. I think the secret to that amp was two independent channels in stereo with the gain and EQ of each set a bit differently, and the combination of them sounding bigger and fuller together. I really didn't need OD pedals with this particular amp, which was pretty much the exception to the rule.

I'm not necessarily talking about an analog SS amp that successfully apes the sound of any given overdriven tube amp - it just has to sound good when on the dirty channel, no more and no less.

So can we start a list of analog SS amps that have great OD/dirty channels? Be sure to elaborate on what makes any given one great for the task.
 

blowtorch

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dv mark frank gambale 121. It's been my go-to for years, now
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Hope Jakedog doesn't mind, here he is with his:
 
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Grandy

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I think most old solid state Peaveys have at least half decent dirt channel. Also I have an old Roland Cube from the 80s that has a nice drive channel. I really liked the Tech21 Trademark 60 I had. It just didn't have enough headroom for my needs.
 
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allesz

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Interesting post; I will keep an eye on It.

I recently bought a, really cheap, Roland dac 15; It Is a single Channel amp and has a very nice Roland clean but, with his strange array of gain controls (gain - volume - master volume), I am able to get great and dynamic crunch sounds. It gets a little to get used to It, and at max gain Is more fuzz than metal; i like it.

For metal I was a fan of Randals RG (? not sure), but it's been a wile since the last time I played One.

Peaveys SS are great and tough amps, and you CAN dial a decent distorted/crunchy sound... But it's a lot of work, maybe too much, compared to other easily available options.

The best SS dirt I remember Is from Marshall's lead mosfet series: the 30 Is great, but quite big (in Italy you only find big 1x12 models, but I think there was also a 1x10...). I also tried the 75 reverb and liked It, very giggable. Never tried Leads 20 and 12, but a lot of people raves about them.

About current production I really can't tell, I am an old fart :)
 

bluesholyman

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I can't speak of one with its own dirt channel, but the only SS amp I had that I liked that I felt handled dirt well, if you consider a pedal in front of the amp as a dirt channel, is the DV Mark Jazz / Little Jazz. Great cleans, but it had this organic sound/feel to it with dirt pedals that was in no way sterile. Not sure if the amp input ever started to clip, but I could not get a bad sound out of it.
 

11 Gauge

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I really liked the Tech21 Trademark 60 I had. It just didn't have enough headroom for my needs.
This made me think about why the dirty channel on a lot of analog SS amps seems to come up short. I think there are probably (at least) two reasons for this:

1. Many simply have a basic distortion pedal as the bulk of the circuitry of dirty channel.

2. Some designers 'tried too hard' to ape a tube amp with analog SS circuitry.

...Tech 21 was kind of an example of the latter IMO, with things coming up short once you got past the emulation part of the preamp. I think you almost have to abandon such analog emulations, in order to design something that both clips musically, and properly couples to a powerful SS power amp.
 

NoTeleBob

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80's Analog Peavey Transtubes can be very usable. Not the heavy distortion settings, but I like the lighter stuff. Metal guys might like the heavy settings.

I recently tried a Cambridge 15. Whoo hoo. This thing is fantastic. As close to tube distortion as I've ever heard from an SS amp. Might be the hands down winner. Minimal, light, mid, heavy, it's all good. This was the beginning of VOX using a 12AX7 in the preamp (later named Valvetronix) to produce tube amp distortion. They hit it. It also has chimey VOX highs.

I'd guess this means that the other VOX Valvetronix amps are similarly good. But I haven't actually tried any of them yet.
 
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NoTeleBob

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I think it's odd that there seems to be so few solid state amps with a good drive channel since there are loads of great drive pedals.

I've posted that before myself. SS distortion isn't exactly a mystery. But most SS amp makers all seem to to toss in a couple clipping diodes and maybe a transistor to overdrive the pre-amp and then call it a day. Mostly it gives you ratty, crude, and often barely usable distortion.
 
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mexicanyella

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80's Analog Peavey Transtubes can be very usable. Not the heavy distortion settings, but I like the lighter stuff. Metal guys might like the heavy settings.

I recently tried a Cambridge 15. Whoo hoo. This thing is fantastic. As close to tube distortion as I've ever heard from an SS amp. Might be the hands down winner. Minimal, light, mid, heavy, it's all good. This was the beginning of VOX using a 12AX7 in the preamp (later named Valvetronix) to produce tube amp distortion. They hit it. It also has chimey VOX highs.

I 'd guess this means that the other VOX Valvetronix amps are similarly good. But I haven't actually tried any of them yet.

Paging @FortyEight for Vox Cambridge observations!

I don’t think the Cambridge > Valvetronix link is as described here though. I think (?) the Cambridge is a hybrid analog amp, with some of the preamp gain coming from a tube stage. Whereas the Valvetronix amps had modeling preamps feeding a 12ax7 acting as a tiny power tube, after the preamp...applying sort of a scaled-down facsimile of power tube distortion and compression...after which a SS power amp actually drove the speaker(s).

Analog SS amps I’ve encountered that had cool dirt sounds were the Marshall Lead 100 MOSFET head a college roommate had...pretty cool Marshall crunch and it even cleaned up fairly well when you backed off the volume. And it was capable of a pretty decent clean sound too, I thought.

An ex-bandmate had a mid-90s Laney GC80A combo, which was a 1 x 12 combo with clean and dirty electric channels with the expected tone controls and an added acoustic channel with separate controls and a graphic EQ. Alongside and slightly above the 12 was a small horn tweeter. It sounded okay with his acoustic electric guitar and it had a pretty decent clean crisp sound with his Strat, but its dirty channel was nice. It didn’t try to be a super high gain metal ripper; it had a softer crunch and tended toward warm. I used to have fun playing through it sometimes.

I used to have a Crate 1 x 12 from, I think, the early 80s called a CR-160. Pre “parti-colored” knobs era.

It had a faux wood trim strip under the controls, sort of oak-looking, and 60 watts. I don’t remember much about the clean channel but it would get fairly loud and the drive channel was pretty warm, and had sort of a prominent-mids soft crunch. Also not a metal machine...I recall it being sort of like if Boss made the yellow SD-1 overdrive pedal in amp form. Not real aggressive but a useful sound.

I remember being surprised how much I liked the dirt channel on a friend’s Fender Sidekick Reverb 35 amp.

Finally I recall a friend’s tiny little all-metal-enclosure GK Stereo chorus combo (250 ML? I think) sounded kind of harsh—but surprisingly loud—through its tiny internal speakers but it would rip when used to drive a Marshall 1960A cab.

For contrast, I pretty much hate the dirty channel on my late 80s Peavey Special 150 1 x 12 combo. Total pants-flapping clean channel—loud and tight, lots of headroom, pretty effective EQ...but the dirt channel disables the B/M/T tone controls and applies a harsh, mid-forward preset EQ instead. The active presence control remains functional so you can “vary how sharp the teeth are,” but all variations are harsh, and it doesn’t clean up well. It doesn’t even clean up well when you turn the channel’s pre gain down. It has sort of a (bitter)sweet spot around 6-7 on the gain, where it’s sort of fun to pretend it’s the sound of Zakk Wylde after slamming a couple twelve packs because someone repossessed his car.

Above that it’s just stupidly distorted hashy fizz, even Slayer would hate it, and below 6 it’s just like tinsel being stuffed in your ears with a rusty screwdriver. Maybe more akin to Zakk Wylde if he was sad about something.
 
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cousinpaul

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I had a 1x10 Randall RG15. No channel switching and a simple diode clipping array. Controls were set up like an old Boogie with a TMB tonestack, gain, volume, master etc... That little amp was fierce! Wish I still had it.
 

FortyEight

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I have used my Vox Cambridge a bunch on recordings and feel like i lucked out. Used for 115 dollars. imho the more u crank the gain, the better the gain sounds. but im usually playing more clean. usually just a bit of grit.

i love that amp but there is one problem, if youre gonna use high gain and want wet effects, the gain will distort the (chorus, flange, reverb, delay). same with any amp. it could use an effects loop but one that small doesnt typically have that. my solution was to buy a jhs morning glory to stick ahead of my wet. and it works. but it doesnt sound quite as nice as the amp's distortion. i really love the trem. its softer though. doesnt goes as deep as a vintage fender tremelo. but i love the sound of the softer one it has.

@Telecaster88 Back in the late 80s and early 90s i did quite a bit of shopping for "decent" amps. the gal i played with and i settled on peavey classic 50s in about 92ish?. bought and paid. then i played that red button fender, the 1x12 version. i got sick to my stomach cuz it was like a week after dropping the dough on the classic 50s. and i think i wouldve preferred that red button one. even though the classics were good. we liked them, but there was like a fluid angriness and clarity with the red button fender's distortion. the peaveys was warmer. different sound. but both smooth.
 

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11 Gauge

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I've posted that before myself. SS distortion isn't exactly a mystery. But most SS amp makers all seem to to toss in a couple clipping diodes and maybe a transistor to overdrive the pre-amp and then call it a day. Mostly it gives you ratty, crude, and often barely usable distortion.
I think that good SS distortion actually is a mystery, at least to many amp makers. Bad SS distortion is exactly as you say - like a singlular big preamplification stage into a pair of shunted, hard clippers, with minimal EQ shaping afterwards, and then straight onto a power amp that's more akin to what you'd find in a PA.

...But you don't even have to be particularly science'y or math'y about it - lots of pedal users seem to have discovered that stacking individual dirt boxes, with the gain set conservatively on each, seems to yield OD/dirt that is much more musical and dynamic, not worlds apart from tube OD. There is no reason that a pair or trio of stacked pedals can't be reimagined as the dirty channel of an analog SS amp.

And I think the stacking thing is basically the big clue as to the basic template to use when designing a great dirty channel for an analog SS amp. Some of the more clever designers had to have stumbled on this years ago. Really the biggest blocker would be building an SS amp to the lowest price point possible, but there are probably some exceptions.
 

Dismalhead

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Jammed with a guy who had an old Yamaha SS, it sounded really good. Also heard good things about old Randalls. I had a '90s Peavey Bandit 112 for a while; can't say I liked the distortion channel at all. Wonderful cleans though.


Edit: Hey, I just remembered my friend has had a Musicman RD50 head for 40 years. Not sure if it's "analog solid-state" but it's a great amp with a warm creamy overdrive. I have been in awe of it many a time.
 




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