Hands-On Review:Hughes & Kettner Switchblade Amps
The first fully programmable all-tube amplifiers
By Stephen Fogel
Many guitarists, myself included, love the idea of having a plethora of different tube tones at our fingertips. While there are a number of affordable amps out there that promise "real tube tone," most fall short of capturing the subtle harmonics and nuances of real tubes. Hughes & Kettner has created the Switchblade series of amps with the promise of genuine all-tube performance with full programmability and stellar digital effects. Musician's Friend asked me to find out if that promise had been kept.
Switchblade amps come in three flavors: 50W and 100W combos and a 100W head. All three boast two 12AX7 tubes, one for the driver and one for the preamp. Different circuitry, combined with the preamp tube, is switched in for each channel, allowing their individual characters to shine through. The 100W models have four EL34 tubes in the power section while the 50W combo has two. Each amp has four completely programmable (more on this later) channels: Clean, Crunch, LEAD, and ULTRA.
The Clean channel delivers a range of sound from classic clean tones with loads of sparkle to warm, mildly overdriven crunch. The Crunch channel kicks up the overdrive for great rhythm tones that pick up where the Clean channel leaves off and go all the way to a raw, boisterous growl. The LEAD channel delivers high-gain British tone with a touch of compression. Whether you’re chugging fat power chords or busting out screaching leads, the LEAD channel has the perfect tone. For metal maniacs, the ULTRA channel gives you unadulterated American high-gain goodness with loads of bottom end and a midrange boost for extra bite.
While each of the four channels presents its own voice, Hughes & Kettner took it to another level by incorporating full programmability. With the included FSM 432 MIDI foot controller, you can easily cycle through 128 presets (32 banks of four presets each).
Tweaking the presets to make your own sounds is simple. Rather than give each channel its own 3-band EQ, gain, and volume knobs, there is only one set of controls for all the channels. Each time you switch channels, the tone controls behave differently, and therefore maximize their effectiveness in delivering the sounds you're after. This also means that wherever you have the knobs set on a given preset, the amp will remember those settings and return them (though not physically) to where they were when you bring up that preset again.
Hughes & Kettner also incorporated three digital effects processors into the Switchblade amps—reverb, delay, and modulation. The modulation section delivers chorus, flanger, and tremolo effects. They're all of the highest quality, so much so you'll be ready to ditch your stomp boxes.
The reverb is very lively and warm—reminiscent of a classic spring-style. The delay section has three controls: Volume, Time, and Feedback. Many players cling dearly to their favorite delay pedal, and that's understandable because they build their sound around various delay effects. The nice thing about the Switchblade's delay is that it's comprehensive and versatile in its offerings. The Mod FX function is controlled by one knob that's divided into three sections. The first third controls the chorus effect, the second controls the flanger, and the third section handles the tremolo. I thought this may be limiting at first, but I found that it actually worked quite well having them set up this way. The control is very responsive so it's easy to dial in the effect you're going for.
The FSM 432 MIDI foot controller is what ties all these great features together. While many of us are accustomed to using our amp's foot switch to merely switch channels, with the Switchblade it's like switching to an entirely different amp.
I’m not in the position to afford several different amps and loads of effects, so I make do with what I have. Even with effects coloring the sound, there are still limitations on what the amp can do sonically. With the Switchblade, it was simple to craft unique presets for different sections of a song and seamlessly switch among them while playing. No worrying about volume spikes, triggering effects, or tweaking knobs on the fly. I found that I was able to focus more on my playing, knowing that the amp would perform exactly as I told it to when I set the presets the first time.
The heart of the Switchblade is its exceptional tube tone. When you factor in all of its features the amp is truly revolutionary. The convenience of creating, storing, and accessing 128 different sounds (complete with digital effects) will make you reconsider hauling around all the gear you use to get your sounds. With a Switchblade, your palette will increase exponentially, as will your creativity.
Features & Specs:
- 2 - 12AX7 preamp tubes
- 4 EL34 power tubes (2 in 50W combo)
- Clean, Crunch, LEAD, ULTRA channels
- 128 user presets
- Multi-FX section
- Programmable external FX loop
- Eminence RockDriver speakers (combos)
- FSM 432 MIDI foot controller