Hands-on review: Pritchard Black Dagger guitar amp
(Brian Johnston | Posted 2012-01-25)
If you were to ask an experienced guitarist whether s/he prefers tube amps or solid state amps, I suspect 99% of the time you will hear not only a preference for tube amps (and bickering over 6V6 vs. EL84 tubes), but whether it be Fender, Marshall, Vox or some other name brand. You may also get a snicker of “How dare you compare the warmth and liveliness of a tube amp to solid state circuitry.” Early solid-states did not help matters, and today most of such amps are manufactured to help establish a price niche, rather than cater to elite musicians.
I had the same misconception since even a cheaper tube amp sounded better than most of the ‘typical’ solid state amps found in music stores, but when investigating boutique builders who have years of experience and knowledge, you are hard pressed to find amps of the same quality and diversity as those developed by Eric Pritchard (who holds 14 US patents, 11 utility and 3 design, as well as numerous foreign patents).
These are not typical solid state amps, but hand-wired and engineered (patented) works of technological art that will someday become standard among all solid state amps – and perhaps replace the tube-driven dinosaurs we have come to accept as the ‘gold standard.’
And these are not digital ‘modeling’ amps (that try to emulate various amp and cab combinations through various electronics means), but extremely diverse ANALOG creations that sound as good and are as sensitive as tube amps, produce clearer tones, and that offer a plethora of functions. As Eric stated, “Pritchard amps step far above modeling amps with great versatility laid on top of great tone. These amps create the right harmonics to be rich, fat, full-bodied, and warm. The Pritchard Amps output stage adds life, sag, expansive harmonics, and still more fat. Then the flexibility tops off its boutique tone. Pritchard Amps are truly a unique combination of great tone and great versatility with the power and harmonics to really cut through in an easy-to-carry package.”
As well, these are not amps you find at local music dealers, but made by a mathematical and engineering genius with decades of experience, and who first dabbled in the area when developing the Harmonic Generator guitar amp with PRS (better known for their quality guitars as the company gave up its initial amplifier endeavour and when Eric Pritchard went solo). But what caught my attention initially was an endorsement from Lance Hoskins, lead guitarist of Sucker Head: “I still get a kick out of the guitarists in other bands we play with that laugh when they see me setting the little amp up on the stage next to their stacks. This still happens at just about every show, and at the end of the night they always ask ‘what the heck IS that thing?!?’ - and then I'm the one laughing.”
Lance continued about how the other bands sounded muddy, yet his guitar sounded loud and clear – cut through the mix like no one’s business. Hmmmm... loud, clear, sounds like a tube amp with plenty of character, and with voicing possibilities to make it sound like other amps we have come to know and love. I had to investigate more and was anxious to compare this to the tube amps I have in my studio, as well as a Marshall solid-state 100 amp head (MG100 HDFX).
What makes tube amps so desirable? Most guitarists would contend that tube amps:
1. Sound richer and more full-bodied;
2. More dynamic with greater response in harmonics; and
3. More alive and less ‘processed’ than a solid-state amp.
This is true for the most part, but the problem is that even a mediocre tube amp often is better than a mediocre solid state and many better-quality solid state amps. However, when you have an engineer with years of experience in the field – a person who understands electronics and how to achieve the above desired qualities that seem to be inherent with tube amps, then you have to re-consider the possibilities; more particularly, greater stability and no blown tubes (or the perpetual cost of replacing them). As well, as I will explain, the diversity of the Black Dagger Pritchard Amp matches the quality of its sound – a truly winning combination. (Note: All Pritchard amps are variants of the Black Dagger, a single-channel amp, with slight differences in assembly. The two channel amps have an extra board for the second channel and ‘voice switch’ capabilities.)
Eric added, “As you might imagine, the tube sound is not native to solid state in any form. So all of the tube sounds had to be done in extra circuitry, such as the triode emulator is done with an op amp plus a circuit to do grid conduction and another circuit to do the plate characteristic. The output stage does what a class AB push-pull output stage does with the added feature of a Watts Knob that keeps that ‘balls to the wall’ characteristic at lower level.”
Well... some of the techno-talk is beyond my knowledge and understanding, although very elementary to Mr. Pritchard and those with an engineering/electronics background. But I know what I like as a long-time (albeit amateur) musician and composer – practical diversity (lots of functions you can use and would want to use) and great sound that is organic and as natural in its tonal characteristics as possible.
Both the range of options and the real user testimonials from professional musicians is what brought me to seek out Pritchard Amps, and which is what inspired this lengthy review as I integrated, to the largest, extent a Casper GT custom guitar (super sensitive solid ash body and Joe Satriani DiMarzio pickups with floating bridge and brass block) and various effects from Boomerang, SolidGoldFX, Analog Alien, Source Audio, Pigtronix, Digitech, Empress Effects, Jam Pedals, and others.
When I took the 180-watt PDP (60 watts clean, 90 watts dirty/peak clean power and 180 watts at ‘peak distorted power’), 12-inch speaker Black Dagger out of its box, the first impression was that this amp was no ordinary factory-assembled fabrication. It screamed ‘boutique’ in every way, from the engraved lettering on the amp chassis (e.g., volume, boost, reverb, etc.) that then is hand-painted with gold, to the retro gold hardware and edging on the front with matching wicker grill.
The back panel on the amp is impressive equally, with all its features engraved and painted in gold against a black metal backdrop – ideal for easy and quick viewing when necessary. The color was right up my alley, a heavy Tolex material that merged dark green and black marbling with matching black corner bumpers and handle. There also are two side handles for easier transport, although this amp weighs less than other tubes in its class, at 42-pounds. Along with the gold paint and grill, it’s a very eye-catching package that does not suggest ‘mass production’ in the least.
Front Panel Control and Features
The most obvious aspects include the input jack and a power-on indicator. The input jack, however, does not have to be used. Rather, the XLR microphone jack on the rear panel can accommodate input requirements, via a microphone.
The In knob adjusts the amplifier to the guitar level, which can be kept to a maximum minimal and turned up for added volume if necessary. However, its use depends also on the input/output of your pedals and the effect you’re trying to achieve. As Eric Pritchard explained: “In chatting with Winn Krozac of PRS guitars, I learned that he cherry-picked tubes for the input stage. And so, I designed the first stage with a gain control, the IN Knob, to adjust/marry the amp to the guitar and player. The idea here is to set the IN Knob as high as you can so that the first stage does not clip when playing hard and clean. In that way, the first stage can help in the trade of picking strength versus harmonic content – a mark of a truly great amp.”
What I like about this knob, particularly, is that you get the most out of the amp (by controlling the gain of the first stage) relative to your playing style and your guitar (humbucker vs. single coil output levels). This knob alone creates various tonal characteristics relative to the remainder of the amp settings.
The Volume sets the clean/crunch level, and obviously the higher you turn it up, the more the breakup or overdrive that occurs. It works beautifully with the patented Watts knob to adjust overall ‘dirty’ volume or distortion (with an approximate 20:1 power range), and the Watts is one of my favourite features on this amp for that reason. In effect, it allows you to adjust the volume to a desired drive level, but add in the Watts and you get that super grainy tone added in the mix without having to crank the volume very loud (although this adds a bit of volume boost to boot). The real kicker is that you don’t lose the quality of and characteristic of your overdriven sound controlled by the Volume knob, no matter the Watts level! In effect, the Watts Knob makes the amp behave in the same way and at all settings, no matter the power, thus maintaining the amp’s same relationship with the speaker (try that with a tube amp!). As Eric added, “it keeps the harmonics at about the same percentage. It provides sag and compression when there is none. And it allows players to adapt to small rooms.”
The Reverb offers a very classy spring reverb that is neither obtrusive nor artificial sounding. It has a warmth that does not muddy the tone, but its presence is obvious and complimentary. Moreover, even when adding a lot of reverb it remains clean without sounding washed out. As Eric explained to me, “the Reverb has two features that the classic reverb circuits do not have. First, to avoid the bloom, it clips the input to the driver just after the output stage clips. Second, it has a noise gate that is operated from the output of the first stage to kill reverb hiss when not playing.”
The Boost and Crunch buttons (accessible on the amp or via a footswitch) are two highly-complimentary options to push one’s tone into that extra dimension. The Boost increases volume to whatever degree the knob is turned, but it adds a sizzling presence (that is slightly distorted in nature) that makes it ideal for lead playing and to cut through the mix even better. The Crunch, as well, adds some volume, but with a grit that helps take those lead solos and driving rhythms a step further (Warning: Experiment with this amp before adding all your drive and distortion pedals!). Even when playing softer music the Crunch adds a nice thickness and edginess that keeps me coming back to it repeatedly. Neither the Boost nor the Crunch seems invasive in the least and the ears can tell that it’s the same amp with the same character, but with a bit of steroid injection. What helps to set these features apart from other amps is that it has a built-in Treble/Mid-Noise Gate that operates when both the Boost and Crunch are activated, making for whisper-quiet operation even at high levels. If you hear anything but your playing, check the cables and pedals because it definitely is not the Black Dagger!
What makes the drive and touch-sensitive distortion qualities so beautiful with this amp is that Eric integrated diverse electronics to achieve a multi-faceted and multi-layered effect. First, the Black Dagger has a ‘drive limited distortion,’ the type of tone you get just before an amp fails, achieved by keeping the Watts Knob down and the volume up (“the usual voltage limitation is replaced by a limited output current. The speaker impedance characteristic then gives the amplifier a different tone”). The ‘vintage distortion’ characteristic is used in the lesser dirty modes and gives the sound or effect of rocking back in the 60s and 70s. The ‘saturated distortion’ is akin also to some classic amps, and is heard as you boost the single with the Boost switch. When applying the Crunch you then hear a ‘high gain distortion’ that is more commonly heard in modern boutique amps.
Now, start adjusting or applying Crunch, Boost and the Watts knob in conjunction with any of the Voices (see next) and you will be astounded as to how many different tones you can achieve.
I saved the best for last on the front panel, being the Voice Knob. This feature is a god-send, as so many musicians will buy various amps to achieve various sounds and dimensions – and anyone familiar with the tell-tale characteristics of a Fender, Marshall or Vox (the three biggies) know exactly what I mean. Leave it to an expert engineer with years of dabbling and modifying as Eric Pritchard discovered ways in which to integrate ‘voice-inspired’ tones that will have you playing around with the settings as though buying the latest multi-functional guitar pedal. As Eric stated, “the Voice Knob is a compromise between my belief of amp sounds derived from circuit analysis and Phil Zuckerman’s (Eric’s partner in crime) belief that there really should be a mid-range notch. After about six months of this, I decided that I should create a Voice Knob to do his Smooth Solo as well as Flat (F, Fender), Moderately Bright (M, Marshall), Very Bright (V, Vox), and my combination of Marshall and early Boogie overdrive (L). Now, I do not claim that these will sound exactly like these classic amps; rather, they are inspired by their general characters.”
Inspiration is all that is needed since, as one forum member on www.TheGearPage.net stated, “The Marshall setting on Pritchard Amps sound more Marshall than Marshall!” Having owned and played on a few Marshalls, I concur. As well, the F setting is so thick and rich, it’s difficult not to crank out some heavy riffs from 60s and 70s rock and think you’re playing on some vintage Fender gear that can range from its Tweed to Blackface. And the V setting is so reminiscent of Jimmy Page’s studio work on some of his Vox-induced guitar playing that it transported me back into time, playing Zeppelin on my old vinyl player when I was a teenager.
The Smooth Solo and Liquid Lead voices may be ideal for jazz, blues and country, but add in the Crunch and Boost and there’s enough edge for soft rock (a Santana-type voicing) without going the full distance in distortion and overdrive offered through the F, M and V settings. The Liquid Lead is a combination of both American and British tones (“it combines the Marshall bottom with a Boogie [Mark Series] overdrive top”) and does offer more edge than the jazz-based Smooth Solo (ideal when accentuating bass and treble for clean solos)... but it’s that Marshall-inspired voice that really gets the lead solos soaring.
And I certainly don’t want to forget the A (acoustic) voice as it offers a very rich and unique quality to both acoustic and other electric instruments. Using a guitar without too much balls (single coils work best), and with the pickup setting of both bridge and neck, it only takes a bit of dialing-in to have your axe sound like an acoustic – not quite... but enough that it picks up the ears of the listener, asking “what did I just hear?” Eric expanded on the nature of this ‘voice’: “The A (acoustic) voice was created because acoustic players have problems with feedback; thus, Phil tried to capture the sound of a miked acoustic with one of my amps using a 31-band equalizer in the effects loop. One critic said that it did not really sound acoustic, but it was cool. The guys at the Grand ‘Ole Opry liked it for their acoustic instruments because it gave them a wider character with more bass and treble.”
The Tone Control stack involves the usual – bass, midrange and treble. All three are sensitive to manipulation, yet none cause exaggerated or excessive variances. In other words, adding a lot of bass does not make the tone muddy. Adding too much midrange does not make the tone too flat and washed out. And adding a lot of treble does not make this amp shrill or piercing. And yet, they are touch-sensitive enough to make one’s tone obvious. With the pickup and tone controls of a guitar, the possibilities of sound with the Tone Control stack, as well as the Voices, is truly inspirational and more diverse than I’ve experienced with a lot of amps as I’ve found within the Black Dagger’s price range and category. Eric added, “The tone controls are a variation on the classic tone stack. The variation is to make the bass more active and I did this by electronically blowing up the low end of the pot, to cover the whole pot, because most of the activity is down there. This ended up producing a treble that was way more powerful than classic.”
Rear Panel Control and Features
Some of these functions I use (and there are some great ones here), whereas others I do not due to my equipment configuration and preferences. The Amp Direct, an example of the latter, is a line level attenuated version of the amp’s output. It is designed to drive a slave amplifier, which in turn drives an instrument speaker. Pritchard further explains that this function is particularly useful for bass players ‘who want both an artistic sound with great power.’
The Effects Loop works beautifully; a guitar may sound fine with a delay and various modulations running direct to the input, but when added to the back of the cabinet’s Effect Loop, the detail becomes crystal clear. Although other effects loops on various amps tend to handle their job sufficiently, there was a certain degree of tone loss in the process, which I found typical with tube amps. This is not the case with the Black Dagger – the tone held true while reducing any minor ambient or exaggerated artefacts inherent with the pedals. This got me thinking about how various boost and distortions would handle within the Effects Loop.
When running the effects direct from my guitar to the amp, I found the Black Dagger to be one of the best sounding amps in terms of its organic nature, aside from its diversity with the ‘voices.’ However, running the overdrives and distortions through the Effects Loop gave a different dimension to the pedals. The best way to compare it is as follows: when the drives/distortions are direct to the input the sound has more sizzle and grain/grit... that ‘down and dirty’ sound; when placed in the Effects Loop you achieve that fat robust driven tone, but without the grit or as much dirt in the mix. For someone looking for both (barring the ‘crunch’ and ‘boost’ options of the amp), having some drive pedals through the Effects Loops and then the distortion/fuzz direct to the Input would make most guitarists happy campers.
As Eric added, “the Return jack has two functions. The tip is a serial return and the ring is a parallel return. One customer has two amps that are connected via a delay that runs from the Send of the master amp to the Return of the slave amp. The two 4-10s produce a huge sound.” A third function is that it can work with a low impedance volume pedal with only a single jack cord.
The Equalized Direct (EQ DI) really caught my attention prior to obtaining the Black Dagger. I’m a fan of being able to hook an amp head directly to a mixing board for low level recording, but while maintaining as much tone from the amp as possible (miking the amp can produce better quality sound, if you happen to have the right equipment and expertise). The EQ DI is a mike level, XLR output, which has an ‘idealized response of a 4-12 closed back cabinet.’ And for my preferences the Equalized Direct can drive mixers, studio or PA extremely well. What further makes this useful is that with a small amp, like the Black Dagger 12-inch cabinet, it’s easy to stay within the mix and to sound great without cranking everything up to ear-splitting levels.
Another great feature is the dual Speaker Jacks. Obviously you can play at ‘gig’ levels, but this jack also can drive 4-ohm and 8-ohm (requires special cable) cabinets. And then you have the patented PJ (practice) jack that allows you to play at tone compensated levels, at about the volume of an acoustic guitar (and even lower!). The amazing thing about the PJ option is that it retains a large portion of the tonal qualities of the amp as though turning it up at high volumes.
And like any good amp, the Black Dagger comes with a Footswitch controller so that you can add the ‘Crunch’ and ‘Boost,’ features I explained earlier. As well, the amp is designed so that you can work the front panel switches even with the footswitch connected. That may be a nice feature, but what is down-right cool is the footswitch that controls the two Five-Inch Horns built into the base of the cabinet. While using the amp straight (no effects), the horns add some high end in the mix (which then can be reduced or controlled via the EQ if desired), but what is so obvious with these horns is how the sound pushes out like it’s turbo boosted (no kidding when I say you can feel it), as the guitar tone becomes even more clear, cuts through the mix even better, and seems to engulf the room. When you add any distortion into the mix, and while using the horns, the grain or tonal texture is like a buzz saw cutting through wood – fabulous for metal playing! The best way to describe how the horns work without and with distortion is that it sounds more vintage and thick without the horns, and with the horns invoked (along with distortion), it’s more like a modern-day rock/metal amp.
Eric did an incredible job on designing his cabinets with their patented ‘Tunnel Backs.’ As he explained to me:
“The other aspect of the amplifier project is the cabinets. Since the amplifiers are relatively light, combos are realistic. However, open back cabinets roll off in the upper bass and only sound full by allowing the speaker resonance... but then that messes up dirty tones. Closed back cabinets increase the speaker’s resonance up and into the range of the guitar and falls back substantially below that, nominally A above low E. A full smooth bass could be had if the resonance were lowered. Transmission line speaker cabinets do that; however, after some experience with them, I knew there were other ways of achieving the end result. Instead of trying to eliminate the resonance, I strove to move it out of the range of the guitar – generally in the range of A below low E to C below low E. I called them Tunnel Backs. Some cabinets I produce include optional, switchable horns for those extra clean highs. They are switchable so that the cabinet is good for dirty too. The technical difference between the closed back cabinet and the tunnel back cabinet is the behavior of the air inside the cabinet. The air in a closed back acts like a spring which drives the resonance up. The air in the tunnel back acts more like a mass that lowers the resonance.”
The circuitry of his amps certainly has much to do with hearing those low notes very clearly (pay attention all you Drop Tuners!), and this is obvious when running the amp direct to a mixer – but it’s also obvious when using the amp’s speaker and cabinet with its Tunnel Back design. I was able to run various EQ settings, fuzzes, distortions... you name it... and those low notes resonated so well out of the Black Dagger (even when pushing the bass a bit heavy); something I could not achieve to any equal extent with a tube amp or other solid state amps.
First, this is by far the most touch sensitive amp I have used. In other words, you better have your chops up to speed if you plan on using a Pritchard Amp as it picks up every detail... and this is relayed in both the tone and harmonics, thus making it an incredibly lively amp – nothing ‘flat’ sounding about the Black Dagger.
Second, this amp is far more sensitive with the tone controls and pickup selection on my guitars (ranging from a Casper GT custom, to an Ibanez JS2400 and a Slash Custom Les Paul) than with any other amp I have used. The differences in bridge vs. middle vs. neck pickup is far more ‘in your face’ than I have experienced, thus making tonal adjustment and experimentation, at times, more frustrating due to the much larger palette now at your fingertips. Have fun!
Likewise, the Black Dagger is very sensitive with effects, and this became very obvious with my Boomerang chorus/delay pedal, a high end delay that has a very transparent and organic quality. On other amps (both solid state and tube) I used a few pre-sets regularly, and they sounded fine even in my recordings. But I have to reduce the ‘repeats’ and degree of ‘mix’ of my delay with the Black Dagger, as the amp cleared up the tone that resulted in the delay sounding too big and lasting a bit too long (conversely, it muddied up much faster with other amps).
Pritchard Amps boast a ‘Best Amp Guaranteed’ (30-day trial run) policy and 3-Year Limited Warranty. This is unheard of in the amp industry, although one would think it should be common. However, Eric Pritchard is no young pup, which means both years of experience and also growing up in a time when customer service and standing behind your product meant something. It was this philosophy that spurned his desire to offer the best service before and after an amp has been sold (call him up and he will talk with you for as long as you like!).
Moreover, you are not limited to simply buying one of his amps. As Eric told me... any part of his amp can be changed and “for example, some jazz players prefer less harmonic embellishment. No problem, change a couple of resistors.... So these amps are highly modifyable.... No one has taken me up on it, but that is exactly what Phil Zuckerman and I did for years in the development of these amps.” Thus, if you have an idea of what you want, before or after purchase, Eric can customize your amp to achieve a truly unique and individualized signature tone.
Eric provided me a brief outline of the manufacturing process, which I would like to share here:
“I moved my machine shop to West Virginia back in 1988. I designed and built special production equipment for a variety of manufacturers. And so, it was nothing new to design and build fixtures and equipment to build amplifiers and cabinets. I bought a CNC milling machine to engrave and mill the chassis sheet metal. Then, after some cleaning up of the metal, the chassis is bent into its five sided shape. The corners are welded and the chassis cleaned further to give a good finish after being black anodized. Then the lettering is filled with gold paint by hand.
“The cabinet panels are blanked out with a panel saw, cut to size with all its features on the now modified copying router. Some of the parts then are cut with the box joint saw. A test assembly of a cabinet will stand without any glue or fasteners, and then the cabinets are glued, sanded, and painted black. The Tolex (covering) is glued on with a high-quality glue that does not crack in cold temperatures. The Tolex then is cleaned up and sprayed with a clear coat to make the Tolex grain and colors stand out. Finally, the hardware is put on, the reverb tank installed, and the speaker(s) wired and screwed in.
“The amps are assembled by hand. The boards are stuffed and soldered by hand. Some parts, such as the pots are soldered in place with the help of special fixtures. The boards are wired together by hand also in fixtures, and then the amp is tested in another fixture that absorbs the heat of an amp driven hard. The amp operation is checked stage-by-stage and condition-by-condition for about four hours to insure proper operation.
“The chassis is assembled first by putting in the AC line circuit, doing the high voltage safety test, and then the boards are installed. Finally, the amp is set up to run the heat stress test and to be checked for safety ground current level. Then the amp meets its cabinet and finally checked before being packed.”
I have always found solid state amps to offer a cleaner tone (although sometimes too ‘thin’ or ‘cheap’ sounding), and they generally accept effects better (cleaner sounding with less muddiness), but up to this point I preferred the more rich, full-bodied character of tube amps. The Black Dagger changed that perception as it delivers such diverse harmonics and nuances one would come to expect in a quality tube amp, but has done so with greater diversity in what Pritchard Amps offer and with superior clarity of those lower register notes.
And, there is an interesting page on the Pritchard website, of professional musicians who own particular Pritchard Amps and what other amps they have retired (ranging from Boogie to Marshall). I suppose I’m now on that list, having retired an Egnater Rebel-30, a Peavey Mini-Colossal, an Orange cabinet and a Marshall head. I previously retired a number of other amps, both tube and solid state, looking for a tone that satisfied my ego and remained clean and clear on recordings; and the Black Dagger helped me to arrive at my destination after a long journey.
Finally, there is a saying: “tube-like response in a solid-state amp.” With the development of Pritchard Amps, and the way technology is headed, eventually we may be saying: “solid-state response in a tube amp.”
Incredible volume from a small package; plenty of vintage tones without going tube; less weighty than a tube amp the same size; diverse in its voicing, thus allowing you to achieve inspired Fender, Marshall and Vox tones; sounds just as good at super-low levels (ideal for practicing) as compared to cranked levels... something that cannot be achieved with most tube amps; you can record direct to a mixer via the XLR output, although miking from the front and into the rear chamber can make this a studio musician’s dream; the added 5-inch horns really push the sound forward (their use is optional); a very detailed user manual to get the most from the amp; all Pritchard single channel amps fit all its single channel cabinets and all Pritchard dual channel amps fit all its dual channel cabinets (there is very little difference between the two, thus giving buyers a choice... they can pick amps for amp reasons and cabinets for cabinet/speaker reasons).
Individual ‘voices’ cannot be selected by a foot switch (which would increase circuitry complexity significantly); high distortion levels (e.g., Metal based music) require some pedals in the mix; many guitarists are so conditioned into believing that tube amps are superior that the cost of a Pritchard amp (although hand-built in every detail) and being associated with ‘solid-state’ technology (typically made to be cheap) makes it less likely to be a key purchase for many guitarists... very unfortunate.
For more information, visit www.PritchardAmps.com; MSRP is $2100 (the two-channel Sword of Satori is $2300).