Written by George VanWagner, Musician's Friend Staff Writer
The recent reboot of Sound City Amplifiers by a team that includes amp guru, Steven Fryette, intends to bring back one of the most iconic rock-and-roll sounds of the late 1960s. I had a chance to spend some time with their latest entry into the small combo guitar amp market, the SC20. Sound City's SC20 is a 20-watt, 1x12 combo that packs a serious punch, despite its compact size and light (35 lb.) weight. The SC20 joins their currently shipping SC30 30-watt combo, and their 50- and 100-watt heads and associated cabs.
Before amp designer Dave Reeves went on to found Hiwatt and design the now-legendary amps that bear that name, he designed amps for Dallas Arbiter, a British company that owned a music retailer called Sound City. These amps were based on the same basic design principles he would follow with his own company — a clean, punchy preamp with a versatile tone stack and a power section that was designed to distort in a wonderfully musical way when pushed to the max. It’s a design that gets its distortion from power tube, rather than preamp distortion. But enough background, let’s get down to the amp at hand.
To begin with, the SC20 is amazingly compact, measuring just 20.5” by 16.75” and only 8.375” deep. Despite the relatively shallow cabinet, it exhibits a solid low-end response. Producing a solid and seriously loud 20 watts from a pair of Mullard 6V6 power tubes and a custom-voiced 12” Eminence speaker, this is an amp that dearly loves to be turned up. Use of a solid-state rectifier and a fixed bias power section reduces “sag” and keeps the sound punchy, even when pushed hard. A unique feature of the SC20 is that, despite having a single input (sorry, you won’t be doubling up with anybody on this combo), it has separate Normal and Brilliant volume controls. While at first glance this may seem odd, it offers a huge range of tonal variation by enabling you to blend the two. As an example, you could have a hard-driven Normal channel and add in a touch of upper-midrange sparkle with a cleaner Brilliant setting.
The three-knob tone stack is quite interactive, and adapts well to different guitars and pickups. In the course of this review, I played a variety of guitars, listed in the last paragraph with the recording notes, if you’re curious. Their pickups range from relatively low-output, vintage-style AlNiCo single-coils to hot ceramic humbuckers. I was easily able to dial in appropriate tones for each guitar. The tube-driven, three-spring Accutronics reverb tank delivers sounds ranging from subtle to surf-ready to psychedelic frenzy. I was impressed with the smooth and even taper across the entire range of the control knob.
Using 6V6 tubes in the output section gives this amp almost a hybrid British/American flavor. There’s a nice “sweet spot” where you can easily go from clean to mildly overdriven just by varying your guitar’s volume control. This spot is just a little beyond 12 o’clock on the channel volume knobs, which is a fair amount louder than I can get away with in my home studio, even with generous and kindly neighbors. Both in the studio and at a small club gig I played with a blues/jazz trio, I ran an attenuator to rein in the output level while still pushing the amp hard enough to get the tones this amp was born to provide. That tone got a positive response from the audience, too, and it was a very satisfying amp for the gig. Based on that experience, I’d qualify this amp as more than ample for small venue gigs, especially with an attenuator/reamplifier system like Fryette's Power Station. Properly miked, it should be able to provide ample volume on stage at larger gigs.
In the studio, I was able to get great-big, punchy rock tones as well as more-refined, less-overdriven tones from every guitar I used with the amp. It shone with both single-coils and humbuckers, from a relatively clean jazz rhythm sound on a Tele to some serious crunch on a Steinberger Spirit GL. The overall character was bright and assertive without being too spiky. I had no problem finding a comfortable place in the mix, without the need for excessive EQ or processing. For a small studio, this is an ideal amp for a wide range of sessions, not just rock.
Because the nature of the amp design keeps the preamp relatively clean, even at higher channel volume settings, it handles pedals extremely well. For the live shows, I used my standard signal chain of a Mad Professor Simble overdrive, Keeley GC2 limiter and Dunlop EP-103 tape echo simulation. They all sounded stellar. In the studio, I tested with a variety of modulation, delay and fuzz pedals, ranging from a home-built boost pedal and MXR Sub Machine octave fuzz, to both the Line 6 M9 and Helix multi-effects modeling pedals. They all provided excellent results. It’s worth noting that on some of the more extreme filter effects, you may need to roll back the bass knob on the amp. Of course, that’s true on just about every amp I’ve tried these particular settings on.
So what is the SC20 good for? To begin with, it’s a great recording amp, especially if you’ve got the isolation to run it full-bore. If you don’t, it also sounds great with gain pedals or a reactive load/attenuator inline with the speaker. On the live front, the size and weight makes it a near-ideal “grab-and-go” amp choice. Would it be my first choice amp for a straight jazz gig? No, but for a more modern jam-band-style jazz gig, it’s got plenty to offer. For a blues, blues/rock, or a rock gig where you can’t bring a stack, you couldn’t do much better. It’s great whether you’re a “just plug the guitar in and play” type or use a giant pedalboard. It’s tight and responsive, with great dynamics available at your fingertips. I wouldn’t grab this one for a metal gig, but, with an appropriate drive pedal and some judicious EQ, you could probably get great results in the studio.
Some notes on the accompanying recordings: The tracks are provided as separate rhythm 1, and rhythm 2 tracks, as well as mixes with each of three lead tracks, each recorded with a different guitar featured. Two of the lead tracks (P-90 and Humbucker) use the Mad Professor Simble overdrive pedal, while the ES345 lead track is strictly cable-to-amp. All tracks were recorded in Logic Pro X through the inputs of a Focusrite Saffire Pro24DSP audio interface with the internal DSP disabled. Tracks were normalized, but no post effects or processing were added. A CADLive D80 dynamic mic was placed 1” from the grille, aimed at the juncture of dust cap and cone, and a D82 ribbon mic was 6” from the grille, aimed about a third of the way in from the outer edge of the cone. Guitars used were a stock 2018 G&L Fullerton Standard Legacy, a 1995 Fender Japan ‘50s Tele reissue-with Seymour Duncan Antiquity pickups, a highly modified “Partscaster” with custom DiMarzio Virtual Vintage pickups wound to P-90 specs, a stock Steinberger Spirit GL, and a stock ’67 Gibson ES-345.