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By Jessie Saunders
I’ve always loved the Marshall half-stack—to hear it and to play through it. It may be big, bulky, heavy—a pain to lift and load—but when the band fires up, it becomes a thing of incredible beauty. For high-powered, hit-’em-with-both-barrels rock-and-roll, there’s no sweeter rig than a Marshall 100W tube head driving a Celestion-loaded 4x12 cab.
Nothing lays down heavy crunching rhythm, rages in overdrive, or rips the air with clear, slicing leads quite the way a Marshall does. And with the speaker surface of four twelves, you feel the thump in your chest and vibration through your feet. The power is exhilarating and the tone is pure rock-and-roll.
The classic Marshalls are all-tube amps and I, like many, never gave solid-state amps much chance of ever capturing the tube amp’s unique magic. Solid-staters had their virtues—less heat, greater ruggedness, no tubes to replace, etc. But the tube amps would always be the real Marshalls. That was my comfortably held conviction until I met up with the solid-state Marshall MG100HDFX head.
It was an MG100HDFX/MG412A Half-Stack a friend had just bought. He was high on it and wanted me to come by and try it out. So I did. I expected it to be a good amp. It had the power and the cab was Celestion loaded. But I assumed it wouldn’t compare to my beloved Plexi. My expectations proved to be wrong; I came away with a new respect for solid-state gear. This head compared very favorably with my Marshall tube rig. It was Marshall’s most affordable half-stack, but it was also a really good one and 100% Marshall.
What amazed me about the MG stack was how familiar it instantly seemed. It not only had real Marshall tone; even more surprising, it had a tube Marshall feel. It was a triumph of emulation. The biggest single factor in this achievement, I learned, is FDD (Frequency Dependent Damping), an exclusive Marshall technology.
While every one else focused only on preamp circuitry emulation to produce tube amp tone, Marshall realized that the back end, the power section, was of equal importance. Power tubes have a low-fi way of interacting with speakers in a guitar amp like a Marshall. The damping effect of the tube power section is inconsistent. It varies with level and frequency, and Marshall engineers developed FDD as a way to make a solid-state power section mimic this tube amp damping characteristic. It’s as if the speakers are always a little out of control.
The MG stack has the traditional Marshall setup: two footswitchable channels (clean and overdrive), each with its own controls. There are some modern refinements such as a Contour knob, and selectable modes for each channel. The Contour is great because it lets you quickly dial up a scooped sound. The channel modes make it especially easy to dial in a particular kind of sound. The clean channel has Clean and Crunch modes. In Crunch mode, higher gain settings yield a mild bluesy overdrive, and in Clean mode there’s plenty of headroom to get a bell-like clear tone at high volumes. The Overdrive channel has OD1 and OD2 settings. OD1 is a more traditional Marshall overdrive—rich, throaty, very much like a classic Marshall tube amp produces. OD2 is a more modern overdrive—very edgy and aggressive.
Where the MG stack most obviously differs from the classic Marshall is its digital effects package. It includes reverb, delay, chorus, and flange—all the basics—and they are excellent quality and can be footswitch controlled. Even the digital reverb is very natural—much quieter than a spring reverb—and it has a separate level control. The effects give the MG100 head a dimension of sound and a simplicity of operation the classic tube heads couldn’t deliver without a herd of pedals at your feet. An effects loop with level control is provided for those who want to use outboard effects.
Other nifty features of the MG100 head are a CD input and a headphone output that has speaker emulation. These are worthwhile features because no matter how big a star you become, you still need to practice and this amp makes it easy to do so. And of course, you don’t want to forget the MG combos that are actually made for this purpose. The MG15DFX and MG30DFX are both excellent practice or warmup amplifiers with many of the same features as the big MG.
Marshalls have ruled the rock stage for decades, since the days when Jim Marshall came up with an amplifier for Townshend, Clapton, Page, and company that gave them the tone and power they needed to redefine rock guitar. The Marshall half-stack was so successful in these early days that it has continued to be a rock band backline fixture. It will continue to do so, and if guys like Wayne Static of Static-X (who uses the MG100 onstage) are any indication, the MG100HDFX/MG412 Half-Stack will find its place alongside the classic Marshalls.