When Lowell Kiesel started Carvin in 1946, his focus was on electric guitar pickups and lap steels. He had a fair amount of initial success, as many top country and surf players of the day (including the Ventures) used Carvin pickups. As the company moved into the ’50s, it offered small tube amps like the model 119A (1955), a 15-watt combo with a single Jensen 12″ speaker, and bigger ones like the model 1212A (’57), a 40-watt 2×12″ combo with vibrato.
Through the 1960s and ’70s, Carvin’s selection of guitar amplifiers grew consistently, with a focus on solidstate stacks like the VL-620 Band Leader and others, as well as a line of tube amps.
The Belair 212 has been in Carvin’s stable since 1995, with the introduction of the Vintage Series.
Today, the Belair is one of the company’s most popular tube combos, and not much about it has changed except that it now ships with Celestion G12 Vintage 30 speakers instead of Carvin’s VL-12s. Oh, and the price has actually dropped! Otherwise, the unit still features four Sovtek EL84 power tubes that produce 50 watts, five Sovtek 12AX7A preamp tubes (one for reverb), a poplar plywood cabinet, long-tank spring reverb, two channels with independent tone controls, effects loop, vintage faux-tweed covering, and the Celestion G12 Vintage 30s. The tweed cover on the Belair is actually vinyl tolex made to look like tweed, which while not quite as cool as the real thing, will stand up to a lot more abuse and more readily resist stains.
In all, the Belair has a clean, well-conceived and well-executed vintage look, from the brown control panel with blond chicken-head knobs to the matching brown strap handle and grillecloth, it all adds up to a very cool vibe. Controls are straightforward, Volume, Bass, Mid, and Treble on the clean channel; Soak (gain), Volume, Bass, Mid, and Treble on the overdrive channel. There’s also a front-mounted channel selector toggle, master reverb, and a rear-mounted Presence control that affects both channels. The rear panel also has dual 1?4″ effects loop jacks for an external effects unit, power and standby switches, speaker output jacks with an impedance selector, a 1/4″ line out jack, and the footswitch jack. One notable plus is Carvin’s use of large 1″ rocker switches for the power and standby. These are a lot easier to locate and manipulate than the typical rear-mounted toggle switches.
To test the Belair, we used a Carvin Bolt guitar with three Carvin single-coil pickups, and a humbucker-loaded Washburn HB35 semi-hollow. With the HB35 plugged into the clean channel, we got a full, round tone with plenty of tight lows, smooth mids, and crisp highs. All three tone controls, as well as the Presence control, had a smooth response that never got harsh, brittle, or nasally, and the amp’s lows stayed tight, even with the bass control turned way up. As we turned up the volume on the clean channel (to about mid-way) midrange got nice and punchy, with excellent pick attack and just a hint of overdrive, producing a big, fat, open sound that stayed tight and focused. The punchiness of the clean channel sounded equally good with the single-coils in the Bolt – thumpy lows, shimmering highs, and a pleasant, clean midrange the never got “knocky-sounding.” We found it near impossible to get the amp’s clean channel to sound mushy or lose note separation, with either guitar in any pickup combination. The Overdrive channel on the Belair features a Soak control that allowed us to overdrive the preamp, for crunchy distortion at lower volumes.
Having independent tone and volume controls allows a player to set the overdrive channel for a full-on distortion sound or solo boost with a bit more drive. Although this amp won’t replace a 4×12 half-stack, it is capable of producing plenty of gain. Rather, it shines more when the EL84s are pushed hard. It can get a little mushy when the Soak is turned up and the volume turned down with humbuckers. For this amp, there just isn’t a better match than the Celestion Vintage 30s. Their superarticulate midrange reproduction and ability to handle the low-end really adds to the Belair’s excellent tone. Plus, having the ability to add another Vintage 30 loaded 2×12″ cab for more output is a bonus. The reverb circuit is icing on the cake that is the Belair 212, tossing in some nice, wet ambiance with the classic tone of a smooth long-tank reverb. The Belair 212 is another outstanding, affordable product from Carvin that would be a welcome addition to any studio or live rig, whether the atmosphere calls for country, blues, R&B, jazz, or rock.
Carvin Belaire 2×12
Features Sovtek preamp/power tubes, two 12″ Celestion G12 Vintage 30 speakers, two-channel operation with independent tone controls, long-tank spring reverb, effects loop, vintage appointments.
Price $599 (direct).
Contact Carvin, 12340 World Trade Drive, San Diego CA 92128; phone (800) 854-2235; carvin.com.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.