With tube amp gurus like Mark Sampson and Rick Hamel piloting the crew, we had a sneakin’ hunch that the Sonic Machine Factory’s 15 Watter we received for review was going to sound kick-ass.
We weren’t disappointed.
Sampson, fresh off a designing stint with the attitude-laden Bad Cat amp (VG, August ’02), and Hamel, who’s been tinkering with guitar gear since the ’80s and developed a line of tube effects pedals called SIB, have struck at the very heart of what guitar players want.
The 15 Watter is the first in a planned line of “Watter” amps (read the funky company literature, then sit back and let it sink in for a bit…), and offers all we’ve come to expect from (yep, here comes that damn word…) “boutique” amp makers; hand wiring, class A circuitry, super-sturdy 11-ply Birch cab, all-steel chassis, professional-grade hardware, and military-spec components. So all the obligatory boxes on the checklist are marked off…
The 15’s two-channel 12AX7 preamp section features a “Cruise” knob (okay, it’s a volume knob, and it’s one of just two controls with cutesy names), a “Hi Gain” knob, master volume, active treble/mid/bass/bright tone knobs, and a Reverb Control with it’s own tone knob!
Another innovation is the 15’s EL-84 output section, which features what SMF calls a “Tube Wall,” which isolates the amp’s circuit boards, pots, and various electronic components away from the heat and electrical fields generated by the tubes. It also isolates the transformer, thus minimizing noise.
Innovation #3 (okay, they’re not the first to use it, but more amps should) is the “Sonic Hatch,” a 7.5″ x 20.5″ swing-open door on the amp’s back panel. It’s purpose is no great mystery; instant cab tuning. “Cab tuning?” Basically it works like this: if you like your sound tight, with less free ring, shorter note decay, and more low-end, then close it up. If you’re more into your high-frequencies and prefer a faster, edgier attack with long note decay, plop that baby wide open!
To give the amp a proper go, we snagged a couple of Fender Strats, a Gibson SG, and a Fender Esquire. With the amp on the “Cruise” (a.ka. “clean”) channel, the treble, mid, and bright controls set at about 11 o’ clock, and the bass at about 2 o’ clock, the Strats and the Esquire had a very large, very fat, full tone with sparkle on top and decided low-end punch. The only time we got anything close to a displeasing sound in this mode was if we cranked the volume all the way – and even then, simply closing the “Sonic Hatch” minimized the unpleasantry.
Players sometimes refer to their overdriven tone as something they “…kick into high gear.” Well, with the 15 Watter, it’s more than just a euphemism; the high-gain channel is literally called “Hi Gear.” And with it switched on (via footswitch or the knob itself) and the gain control at 10 o’ clock, the single-coils yielded a super-fat blues tone, especially in the neck position on the Strats. The active tone controls were voiced very musically and even though they overlapped, there wasn’t any noticeable out-of-phase sound. With the gain set to max and the hatch closed, the SMF’s overdrive had a very British/Blackmore-ish sound with tight lows and well-defined mids.
The SG’s humbuckers did a fantastic job, as well, with more of the expected fat British overdrive, with good note separation and no fuzzy overtones.
The reverb was icing on the cake. The separate tone control on the reverb lets the user dial in anything from a very clean, soaking-wet tone to a deep, lush, ambient sound. Even though the SMF is only a 15-watter, it was plenty loud and would work well at most any gig, or in the studio.
Sounds Good, Looks Cool
Contributing to the 15’s unique aesthetic is a prevailing “oval” theme (oval speaker opening, oval silkscreening, oval logo) as well as chicken-head knobs, a choice of silver or dark grey grillecloth, and five tolex color options for the cab-front. Regardless of the combination, they add up to an amp with definite contemporary flare.
And in the “Sheer Eye Candy” department is the backlit logo panel, with its circular red LEDs that spin at a speed determined by you, the user!
From a player’s point of view, there’s little if anything to find fault with here. The SMF looks cool, throws some curveballs into the mix, grants tremendous user flexibility, and sounds fantastic. The amp we tested suffered only from a lack of easy access to the tubes, but Sampson told us a design change was in the works. And that’s cool, because this baby will run so much that every so often it’ll need a new pair of shoes.
Type of Amp: All-tube Class A 1×12 combo.
Features: Hand-wired construction, 11-ply cab, all-steel chassis, mil-spec components, innovative “Sonic Hatch” and “Tube Wall,” footswitch included, top-quality tone.
Price: $2199 (retail).
Contact: SMF/Sonic Machine Factory, www.smfamps.com.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.