You may ask, "What's a GAMMA?" No, it's not how superheroes are made. Or maybe it is. The GAMMA series G25 and G50 bring some serious oomph to the world of affordable solid-state amps. These compact, lightweight, grab-and-go combos, though they may be priced at what you think of as entry-level, were made to deliver great tone that holds up at giggable volume levels.
We had the chance to sit down for a chat with GAMMA product manager, Patrick O'Connor, to talk about how the series was developed and what it is that makes them such an extraordinary value for every player from home, to studio and stage. O'Connor, a long-time industry insider, with years as a product manager for one of the world's largest amplifier and effects companies, is also a lifelong performer and seasoned musician.
The HUB: Patrick, take us back to the early days of GAMMA. What was the ethos that drove the development of these amps?
Patrick O'Connor: We wanted to do something different from what everybody else was doing—stuff that other people weren’t focused on. I realized the opportunity was to really dig into speaker quality. We have a partner that we work with that has great speaker development technology, and we tapped that partner to make speakers that are basically about twice as good as you would normally find in amps in the GAMMA's price range. So, we said, "Let's do that, instead of all the DSP and hi-tech stuff." We think a lot of customers will really appreciate a straight-ahead amp. The fact that it's all-analog means that somebody who's a pedalboard player can have an amp that delivers that sound of their pedals authentically, without any budget DSP and effects potentially getting in the way of what they're delivering to their audience.
The HUB: So, how did you go from the initial idea to actually designing and developing the idea?
PO: We had a dual track development. First, we were working with the speaker developer and the key thing that emerged from that partnership is that we have magnets on our speakers that are substantially bigger than the magnets on other speakers around this price. That's really what gives them this high-headroom capability that sets them apart.
Second, while we were working on speaker development, we were also working with a local engineer here in Los Angeles who has a great background in doing analog products. She actually built up what we call the "Silver Box"—a prototype that had a bunch of different amp circuits built up. It had multiple distortion topologies, different tone circuits and adjustability that you wouldn’t normally find on an end product. We worked with that to decide what the four crafted “voices” should be in the product.
So, we were doing two things in parallel: some great speaker development and some great circuit development. And then we put all that stuff together at the end.
The HUB: Let’s take a closer look at Channel Two, which has four different voices: Clean, Blues, Rock and Metal. Are these voices based on specific amps, or were you going for more of an overall vibe?
PO: It's more of an overall kind of vibe. We're not trying to nail any specific model of something. We're trying to make sure that we give people four “compass points” of great guitar tone, and also a lot of versatility.
One of the things that we did is have an effective variable drive knob on there, and so for instance, you can go to the clean sound, and if you turn that drive down, it's a great clean sound. But if you turn it up, it's an awesome pushed clean sound that you might not normally get from an amp.
The HUB: Would you describe that as almost like a boosted clean?
PO: There's a lot of drive character to it, so it's not just about gain. There's also distortion in that circuit, and we have two completely different distortion circuits in the amplifier. We’ve got one that's serving the high gain sounds, the Rock and Metal, and a totally different one that is serving the Clean and the Blues side of the amp.
The HUB: Did you have any “happy accidents” or surprises as you were voicing the amp?
PC: The big thing that we discovered while working on this was the importance of doing a great job both at loud, high volumes, and at low volumes. We had to vary the tone. Part of what the amp does, without the user having to think about it, as you turn the volume knob, is vary the amount of mid cut that the amp delivers.
When you're playing alone at home, maybe at bedroom volume, you don't want very much mid cut, because you're essentially being the band, and you want a full sound. When you're playing with a band with a bassist and a drummer, if you have too full of a sound, you're stepping on everyone else's frequency range, and things start to sound muddy—you won’t be able to cut through. The GAMMA, as you crank it up, reshapes the midrange of that sound in a way that you don't have to think about. It gives you that same experience you were getting before, but now at volume and in a way that plays well with others. One of the really key things for these amps, especially for the 50-watt model, was we wanted it to be the most affordable amp you can get that can truly hang with drums and bass. So, we used it pretty extensively in a band setting, at volume, to make sure we were delivering on that.
The HUB: Can you walk us through the speaker design a little more? You mentioned it was happening in parallel with the amp circuitry.
PO: It is a little bit like the chicken and the egg. We were constantly checking the circuitry and the sound against the speaker, and then making refinements to one or the other as we saw how well they played together.
The HUB: That kind of sounds a little bit of a seesaw, as you’re constantly adjusting the balance.
PO: Exactly. And it's a give-and-take, and you discover things as you go. You know, the discovery of the high headroom was the big opportunity. We had had a lot of discussion about what was possible, what the opportunity was, and the first sample we got had these massive magnets. We said, "Oh, my gosh!” And the first time we played it, you could feel it as a player. It was like, "Oh, that's doing the kind of thing I expect from a more premium-quality amp." And one of the things that I've found from users is they'll play the amp, and they'll say, "It almost seems more like a tube amp than a solid-state amp,” or, "It seems more like Class-A," or something like that. I believe the reason people say that is people often only experience high-quality speakers in high-quality amplifiers. So, they're used to high-quality speakers in tube amps that cost them many hundreds of dollars, but they're not used to a high-quality speaker in an affordable solid-state amp. So, that's really what we're doing is we're prioritizing the capability of the speaker in a way that you won’t find in other amps in this price range.
The HUB: In our first discussion about these amps, you mentioned that they make for a great pedal platform, which is a term that gets thrown around a lot. So, what makes GAMMA a great pedal platform?
PO: Well, the reason we think this is a great pedal platform is Channel One, or the “Blue Channel,” on the amplifier. That channel is like a straight line to the True Blue speaker, staying analog the whole way. We've put in the best solid-state electronics that we can put in here for this price, and it's like a really well-built analog stompbox.
GAMMA's signal path is all-analog with extraordinary headroom, which is great for working with a board full of pedals. Think of all that headroom as having a larger canvas to paint your tone on. As you're drawing those big shapes, you never really run off the edge of the border. Once you run off the edge of the border, in most affordable or smaller solid-state amps, that's where the speaker starts crapping out and giving up. So, our speaker, which has a much larger magnet than is typical, provides you that larger canvas. There's less danger that your sound will be adulterated by the limitations of a less well-designed speaker. And since GAMMA's all-analog, there's no chance of anything in the digital domain messing up what you're doing.
The HUB: So, Channel One is the pedal channel. But there's nothing to keep you from putting pedals on Channel Two, right?
PO: Exactly. Channel Two is fantastic. In fact, if you go to the Clean sound on Channel Two, you can adjust the drive to get exactly the same sound that's available on Channel One, but now you get the freedom to add more stuff from your amp. That's part of what I think is great about it. For some pedal players, what they're about with their pedals is more about effects and looping and stuff, but they still want to get their tonality from the amp. They certainly want to be able to dirty it up further from the amp itself. We have all of that capability on tap as well.
The HUB: As far as configurations, you've got a 25-watt model and a 50-watt model. What do you think are the typical applications for each?
PO: The G50 is really the choice if you're going to be playing at volume in a room with drums and bass—with people who hit hard and play loud music. So, if you're playing Jimi Hendrix- or Led Zeppelin-style music with a band, then the G50 is your choice. Frankly, some similar amps marketed at 50 watts will not hang in the same way. The 25-watt is made for people who don't need quite the same volume levels. You can still play with a band, but you might be playing Dave Matthews songs (laughs) instead.
The HUB: Maybe not hitting as hard!
PO: Exactly. Not hitting as hard. But, on the other hand, if you're in New York, and you're playing at a small gig, they don't really let you have a whole bunch of stage volume. You don't need to be blasting at the level that can keep up with a hard-hitting drummer. You're asking your drummer to play with brushes.
The HUB: Right. And you might be miked up anyway on top of that.
PO: Exactly. You're probably going to be miked up, and, also, if you're playing at home, you're not going to be cranking up at that level either. It depends on the volume level that you want to reach. And then, of course, there's a difference in sound between the 12” speaker and the 10” speaker. To be clear, it’s not that either one is better or worse, they’re just different.
Outside of the speaker size and overall wattage, the G25 and G50 are functionally the same amp.
The HUB: Do you personally have a preferred setting on these amps? Maybe a preferred pairing with certain pedals?
PO: I tell ya what, that pushed Clean is something not to be missed. It really is different from any of the other driven sounds on the amp, and it's a sound that every time I hear it, I'm thinking, "That sounds really awesome." That's probably my favorite.