Hands-On Review:Tech 21 SansAmp PSA-1.1
All-analog and still the industry standard in amp simulation
Darius Van Rhuehl
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer
There are certain rare products that seem to spring forth from the collective unconscious as whole, complete, and good. Even though we may never have had any contact with them ourselves, somehow we accept them as "really good." Before I had one, if anybody asked me about Tech 21’s SansAmp, I’d invariably say, "Yeah, they’re really good." And once I had one in my studio, I finally understood why there’s an aura around the SansAmp that prompts us to praise without having touched one. That said, my purpose is to get the SansAmp out of the collective unconscious into the forefront of your mind, and from there, into your rack.
The Sans of time
Before we begin, let’s talk about what’s new in the SansAmp PSA-1.1: there’s a user-requested front-panel on/off switch, a trim control for master volume, additional user preset locations, and . . . that’s about it. Well, the "what’s new" conversation went by in a flash, didn’t it? But that’s what gives the SansAmp its longevity and reputation as an industry standard. Remaining virtually unchanged, save for some convenience controls, it has the same great sound it did since its introduction—and no one has been able to improve on it. I liken it to the classic studio gear, such as the Universal Audio 1176LN, the Pultec EQP-1A, and the Fairchild 670; after decades, they stand uncontested for their sound—and while there are plenty of variations on the theme they started, nothing has come along to replace them. It’s comforting to know that 10 years from now, you will still be able to make a record with the SansAmp you bought 10 years earlier.
Okay, let’s talk about the SansAmp PSA-1.1 and what it does. It was designed to duplicate tube amplification in its entirety, including input and output stages, giving you all the characteristics of tube response that encompass overdrive and harmonic content. Its front-panel knobs give you control over characteristics that were previously the sole domain of the amp’s designer. Unlike other amp modelers, it has a 100%, all-analog signal path. The only digital components are programming and memory. And like a true tube amp, it responds to your playing, as well as input volume changes.
Sans the hype
I love it when I’m asked to review equipment I already own. No hours of testing, futzing, figuring it out, and better still, all I have to do is speak from experience. Actually, I own two SansAmps. Why do I have two of them? If you’re thinking one for the studio and one for the gig so I don’t have to go rack diving, you’d be right. But that’s not the only reason.
Unlike my guitar-recording mentor, I can’t afford a $30,000 collection of amps and cabs (he has a SansAmp too), but I do understand the value of having them. The different characteristics of various amp and cab designs—and how they respond to one another—especially in multiple amp setups, is essential for finding the right sound for the song. My boy-on-a-budget solution is the SansAmp PSA-1.1 as my preamp, a stereo tube power amp, and a 4x12 cab setup in stereo with different types of speakers. One SansAmp drives my 30Ws for smooth distortion, and the other gives me clean crunch from the 60Ws. I blend them into one track, lather, rinse, repeat.
If I want a high-gain, rectified sound; classic Marshall distortion; or whatever, I just dial it in using the character controls on the PSA: The aptly named "Buzz" controls low-end breakup and overdrive; more gives you "buzz," as it were, and small increments of cut give you clean. The center position will add definition to distortion. "Punch" sets midrange breakup and overdrive; less gives you softer Fender-style breakup; while more gives you harder, heavier distortion. At maximum, it gives you the sound of a Marshall with a wah pedal at mid-boost position. "Crunch" handles high-frequency harmonic content—it’s also where pick attack lives. Less gives you smooth high-end and clean tones. And finally, "Drive" adds power amp distortion. I love this control. I prefer to get my distortion from the power amp and speakers, leaving my preamp clean. There are also high and low tone controls with 12dB of boost and cut. And the new Trim control is great for equalizing the volume levels of various presets on-the-fly in live performance.
Another trick I use the SansAmp for is one I picked up from a friend, producer/mixer Ronan Chris Murphy (King Crimson, Tony Levin, Steve Morse), who uses a combination of the SansAmp Bass Driver and the A Designs Audio REDDI DI for all his bass tracking. I use the same setup, except in place of the Bass Driver I use the PSA-1.1. It has 10 presets designed solely for bass and I tweak them if needed (usually not). Of course, it doesn’t stop with guitar and bass. SansAmp is regularly used by pros to add something special to other instruments as well as vocals. Along with tonal variation, an added bonus is its user memory. If I stumble on an incredible tone during a session, I save it to memory and it’s there whenever I need it—no twiddling, fiddling, or wondering how I got that sound.
As far as using it for live gigs, well, the unit speaks for itself; no heavy tube amp heads to carry around, and all the sounds I need for any song or genre. But I’m more of a studio guy these days, so both of my SansAmps stay connected to the patchbay—but not just for recording. They’ve saved my bacon many a time during a mix. I keep them set up as L/R hardware plug-ins. This way, when tracks come in that need some love, or the band was clever enough to save a clean DI track, I can either re-amp through my live room setup, or simply apply the SansAmp as a true analog plug-in (no models here) and save my CPU for other types of processing.
PSA, I love you
Gushy romantic Beatles reference aside, to me, the best recommendation for any gear is whether people are using it to make records. Since the SansAmp is an industry standard, I guess we know the answer to that one. Still, if you’re doing recording of any kind, whether it’s for fun or profit, having the wall of amps and tonal options that Tech 21 has managed to fit in a single rackspace is indispensable. To my way of thinking, it’s not a matter of why you should own a SansAmp; it’s simply a matter of when. Here’s a simple formula that will help you: Just look at your rack and say this over and over with great conviction: "I’m going to have to get a SansAmp sooner or later—why not now?"