After using the Badcat Unleash at band practice, gigs and at home over the last year, it’s now become a staple of my guitar rig. What the Unleash is, is an attenuator/re-amplification device that allows you to take the output of any amplifier between 2 and 100 watts and scale the output of it up or down to fit the venue: your bedroom or a concert hall.
(For my February 2013 Review of the Unleash click here: UNLEASH REVIEW )
In my case, the amplifier in question is a Magic Valve clone of a 1957 Fender Deluxe amp. The Deluxe has an output of around 12 watts. Some people would say it’s a loud 12 watts, as when it’s cranked (and it goes to 12) it can almost keep up with a three piece rock band. Probably the most famous use of one is by Larry Carlton on the Steely Dan cut “Kid Charlemagne”. A humbucker equipped instrument with the amp’s volume control on about 3 to 4, depending on your particular pot’s volume taper, will render a beautiful singing sustained tone with just a touch of hair.
You can then roll the volume pot down on your guitar to 6 or 7, which cleans up the amp almost entirely, and just ramp it up to 10 for a solo. If that volume and tone works for the band, music and venue your playing in: you’re in luck. If you mic the amp and have a great PA system and sound man you’re also in luck. (If you always have that, then you’re playing better rooms than I am…..)
It’s a fantastic sounding amp and has all sorts of wonderful tones in it. The one thing it won’t do is play loud and clean at the same time. For a time I tried using a two amp rig with a 40 Fender Bandmaster Reverb turned into a combo amp with a single 15″ speaker and using an AB Switch. This approach can work well, but you need to carry more stuff, convince soundmen you need to take up two microphone inputs, and a few other limitations. Enter the Unleash.
I’ll explain the whole signal path chart in a second, but it will be easier to understand if I simplify and just explain how the Unleash works in the above rig. I set the volume on the amp at around 3 to 4, depending on the guitar I’m using. This allows me to use the “rolling-off -the- guitar’s-volume” outlined above. The signal leaves the 5E3 and goes into the Unleash. The Unleash provides a load to the amplifier so it thinks it’s connected to a speaker, the signal is attenuated to line level, and then re-amplified to whatever volume you choose with a couple of knobs on the front of the Unleash. The Unleash has a “class D” amp that has an output of 100 watts into an 8 ohm load and 180 watts into 4 ohms.
The function of the “Class D” amp is not to be a producer of tone, but just amplify the sound with as little coloration as possible. This is something that some guitarists seem to have trouble grasping. Some guy on one of the forums posted that he compared the sound of his Mesa power amp to the Unleash using a mesa Pre-amp as a sound source. Talk about missing the point. In practice, the Unleash has enough power so that you have enough headroom to play without the additional (and unwanted) coloration that ..
When I fist got the Unleash, I went through this whole routine to see how it was impacting on my “tone” trying to get the volume just right so I couple quickly unconnect the Unleash and thus obtain a “true” A to B comparison. I then realized that I was trying to get the Unleash to do the one thing I would never ask it to do: replicate the sound from the 5E3 at the same volume. I was worried that I was losing some high frequency information, and then it dawned on me that if I had to resort to “tests” to hear it, it was probably insignificant. I think I generally turn up the treble on the 5E3’s tone control a little higher when I use the Unleash, but that’s about it.
The guitar’s volume pot controls the level of distortion that the 5E3 generates, and I use the Ernie Ball volume pedal to control the ultimate volume. I also have a foot switch that controls two pre-set levels that I can set on the Unleash. Set the guitar’s volume pot to 5, and you can get Twin Reverb like levels of clean with 180 watts to back it up. Or screaming distortion at virtually any volume level I’ll ever use.
The odd thing is I hardly ever do the one thing that most people associate with attenuators: Crank the amp to 10 and then bring it down to manageable levels with the attenuator. I did plug my Goldtop into it and after I realized that, yes, I could get it to sound just like “Cinnamon Girl” in my living room without scaring my cat, I lost all further desire to do that. A little too fuzzy for my tastes, but it’s nice to know I’ll be able to form a Neil Young tribute band in the retirement commune. (You know, where people will get around in golf carts styled like old VW buses.)
So why the RP360XP? 90% of the time I just use it for reverb, and maybe a little chorus or delay, but I discovered something it can do that is really cool. I got the RP to use with a Fender Greta at home but when I plugged it into the 5E3 I noticed that the “Bassman” amp model blended with the 5E3’s sound in an almost seamless manner, especially after I turned the model’s gain control down. I set it so the amp model would just barely distort, if at all, and then set the output level to just a hair higher than the signal supplied by the guitar. What’s happened is that I’m basically coloring the signal to resemble the clean sound of a Bassman and then layering the 5E3’s distortion on top of that. Sort of like an EQ with presets.
You end up with a sound that is definitely “tweed” in character, sort of like if you could have a Bassman with 6V6 tubes, 2 X 12″ speakers and 180 watts. I’ve got a “68 Plexi setting”, a “Twang” setting based on a Twin, and a few others. I’ve been working on an “AC30” patch, but it’s not ready for prime time yet. The key is getting the blend between the processor and the amp set just rig.
That could be tedious, but the RP has a feature on it that makes all this a piece of cake. They call it “sound check”, and it allows you to record something on the unit’s looper and then use software to set everything up with the 40 second loop. You can tweak everything with mouse clicks while the first 12 bars of “Hideaway” plays endlessly. I’ve got the whole rig connected and can hear what the end result is going to sound like by just dialing the volume down to neighbor, family, and pet friendly levels. You can sit there drinking a Longfin Lager and marvel at how much easier it is to set levels whilst not playing guitar at the same time. A lot easier to concentrate on getting an EQ patch “just so” when you’re not going back and forth between playing guitar and twiddling knobs.
At band practice, I had to make a few slight adjustments to deal with the higher volume, but that was real easy to do as I’ve had the Unleash long enough to know things will sound a little different at stage volume. I learned that you need to program a little less bass at living room volume, and then it will be pretty close to being right at stage volume. The fact that tone, distortion and volume are totally separate makes the process so much easier, without having to worry about hitting the amp’s “sweet spot”. I can make something louder, without also increasing the distortion, or get more distortion while lowering the volume, should I feel a need to do that.
The rig worked great at a gig the other night, I used only about 4 or 5 different preset patches on the processor, so there wasn’t a lot of tap dancing on pedals to make things happen. Much less hassle than individual pedals. We only play one cover, so I have no concern about “nailing” a sought after tone or a particular amp. I’m not concerned if my “Bassman” patch sounds like a “real” Bassman or not, as long as I like the way it sounds and serves the tune. The cool thing is, though, that there were no surprises as the rig sounds EXACTLY the same in my living room as it did on stage, just louder.