Written by Julian Williamson, Musician's Friend Staff Writer
It’s the great paradox that’s been around since the inception of the tube guitar amp—the amp sounds best when it’s using all (or most) of its power, but that makes it way too loud to use. Enter the Fryette Power Load.
The Power Load is a sort of hybrid of the excellent Fryette’s Valvulator DP/DI direct recording amplifier and the Power Station II reactance amplifier I reviewed last year. It takes the reactive load, I/O and volume limiting from the Power Station and couples it with the cab and mic emulation from the Valvulator to make a phenomenal little box that lets you expand the utility of your favorite tube amp.
Now, let’s check out what it can do.
Crank it Up While Turning it Down
Since guitars are loud, having the ability to get a cranked tube-amp tone at napping-baby levels is fantastic. And I can personally attest that my 6-week-old, light-sleeping little man didn’t wake up with a dimed 120W amp being played in the next room. Plus, with the added headphone output, silent play isn’t just for solid-state and practice amps anymore.
I will say that the attenuated output on even a 120W tube head is perfect for practice, but likely isn’t sufficient for a live rock band. With the amp and Power Load cranked (after the baby woke up), it was maybe just bordering on low-level rehearsal volume. For playing live, you’d need to run board direct.
Really Hear Your Amp for the First Time
If you’re like me, and prefer your tone heavily saturated in gain-drenched goodness, then you’re used to the preamp tubes doing the majority of heavy lifting, tone-wise. In order to drive the power tubes hard enough to really add to the flavor in a home or studio situation, you’re going to be hitting legitimately dangerous volume levels without hearing protection. However, with the Power Load plugged in between your amp and cab, you can drive the power tubes to add a rich extra layer of distortion to your tone without exploding any eardrums.
Because the whole point is to let your amp sing its full voice, I dusted off my first-generation Peavey XXX 120W head—the one that caused endless headaches for my neighbors when I was 16—and put the Power Load between it and my trusty Orange PPC212 2x12 loaded with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. (I used the Power Load’s Direct Out 1, which bypasses the unit’s emulation circuits.) And, because I wanted to go full high-school rig, I tuned up my Gibson Gothic V with an EMG 81 in the bridge and 60 in the neck, and let ‘er rip.
The only other time that amp has been past 3 on the master volume was during last year’s Power Station demo. And, as expected, Power Load delivered the same singing tone as when I last cranked the snot out of the old girl. I was able to dial back some of the preamp gain because the quartet of EL34 power tubes woke up and joined the party.
The XXX, which I’ve owned for 15 years, was like a whole new beast. The gain was thicker without losing clarity. The sustain neared Spinal Tap levels. The tone was bigger and fuller. And it wouldn’t be even remotely possible without the volume reduction from the Power Load.
Who Needs a Mic Anyway?
This review wouldn’t be complete without taking advantage of direct recording with a 15-year-old-plus tube head.
To give it an adequate test, I did one round of playing and recording the old-fashioned way—by painstakingly trying to center a Shure SM57 on a Vintage 30 through the opaque basket weave of my Orange 2x12. After much sweat and profanity, I got it set up and connected to my old M-Audio FastTrack Pro, and into Pro Tools. The sound was rich and full and roughly the same sound that has been powering rock and metal for 30 years. But that was to be expected.
I then simply moved the XLR cable from the back of the mic to the emulated Direct Out 2, adjusted some levels to compensate for the direct input, and hit record. That’s it. There was no shining a flashlight through the cab’s grille to center the mic. I didn’t have to stress about bumping the mic or stand and changing the axis. I didn’t have to worry about playing too loudly and annoying neighbors or family members. I just ran an XLR cable from the back of the unit to my interface, and started recording.
So, how does the Power Load’s emulation sound? Great, but different. It sounds awesome, but you have to remember that the speaker and mic tone that Fryette is mimicking is not what you’re used to playing through. I was able to get it in the tonal ballpark of my Orange 2x12 by noodling with the controls (more on that in a moment). But, at the end of the day, it’s not my Orange 2x12. And that’s a good thing.
After tweaking the different EQ parameters, I was quite happy with my tone. It sounded meaty, full and like no other cab I’ve owned before. And that means that it’s a new tonal profile for recording and live play. Plus, with how nuanced the controls are, you can dial in a ton of new sounds to enjoy without stacking a mountain of bulky and expensive cabs and fragile mics in your studio.
Get Ultimate Control of Your Sound
The Level knob is pretty self-explanatory. It works on both of the direct outputs, but Direct Out 1 bypasses all of the other controls, except the reaction-load toggles. The top 3-way toggle is Edge/Bright/Flat, which sets the high-frequency response. The toggle below that is Deep/Warm/Flat, which dictates the low-frequency response. The other switches include a 180-degree phase reverse, In/Out for turning the emulation on and off (in case you want to use an external impulse response after the Power Load) and Air/Bite, which determines the type of mic and placement.
The remaining controls do most of the EQ work to dial in your sound. The two Contour knobs sway the high- and low-mid bands quite far, so you can do some interesting tweaking with your sound. And, lastly, the Emphasis knob adjusts your high-frequency response in conjunction with the Air/Bite toggle. Turning left, it sort of has the sonic effect of moving a speaker cab farther away from your ear. And a spin to the right adds more presence, as if the cab is delivering more directly.
Other Awesome Features of the Power Load
As I mentioned earlier, the addition of a headphone output and program/aux. input means that any amp becomes a practice amp, even vintage ones. You don’t need to clutter your house with additional heads or combos just so you can jam along to your favorite tunes after the kids go to bed. For years I had to refine my chops by playing parent-annoying metal through a stereo, and then noodling along via the ol’ XXX. It was loud, inefficient and led to many a spirited conversation in my house.
But, with the Power Load, you can play with your cranked stage amp at any time of the day or night, and no one will know. Plus, as with the Fryette Valvulator, the Power Load includes a stereo headphone effects loop, so you can add your favorite delays, reverbs, etc. into the mix, so there’s no loss of tone when you practice.
Like the other Fryette models I was fortunate enough to demo, I love the simple-yet-versatile design of the Power Load. While there are a few of these types of attenuation/emulation units that have been rolling out in the last few years, the Fryette Power Load is a totally analog beast. That means there’s no digital-processing latency, fiddly apps to navigate or overwhelming I/O and controls. You just plug it in, dial in the controls to your preferences and play.
Fryette is batting a thousand in my book. The Valvulator direct-recording tube head is a fantastic studio tool. The Power Station II is a do-all miracle box. And the Power Load takes the best parts of each to make something new that works for practice, recording and on stage. It expands what you can do with your amp, and lets it sing out in ways that used to be reserved for only the biggest of venues. If you own an under-used tube amp, you’re tired of being told to turn down, or you want to up your studio game, do yourself a favor and plug into the Fryette Power Load.