For years, I have enjoyed the size, weight and power of small solid state amps. I used to be a die-hard tube aficionado but I grew tired of continually diagnosing microphonic and noisy tubes.
So I switched to solid state amps but I always missed the bright tube compression you got with a vacuum tube preamp.
A local engineer (John Q.) in Ohio made me a pair of preamps. One was a dumble preamp and the other a Black Face fender preamp. They both sounded great. In front of a SS Amp like a Acoustic Image, Evans, Quilter or Mambo, they yielded a bright and bensony tone that I really loved. The dumble preamp also had the advantage of being able to get a creamy overdrive sound but that's a different story for a different day.
Many folks asked me about buying a preamp from the local engineer who made mine but he's no longer doing that sort of thing. I did investigate and tried several alternatives which I felt were equal to what John made. Here's is a partial list.
- Alembic F2b - this is basically a rack mount fender showman preamp. It's studio quality and very quiet and sounds great. You can occasionally find them for $275 but recently, they seem to have sky-rocketed up to $600ish
- Kingsley Squire - This is a pedal and is around $260. They make several versions. I have tried the dumble and fender versions and they are both fantastic. Very quiet and high quality.
- Fractal AXE-FX II / AX8 - This is what I'm currently using. It's an amp modeler and can model virtually any preamp or amp on the market. It's the most flexible solution but is also somewhat expensive. The AX8 is a floor-board version while the AXE-FX II is a rack mount unit. The floor unit goes for around $1200, and the rack mount unit is $2500 though you can find them used for much less.
- Kemper Profiler - This is also a modeler and it's a great sounding unit. Overall, the axefx products are more flexible but sound-wise, the kemper produces similarly high quality tones. You can find them used for $1500ish.
- Amplifire makes several amp modeling devices including a pedal that is very small. The original version I tried didn't have a great fender clean tone but from what I understand, the newer versions do. The high end version of this product goes for around $599 and the pedal version goes for $299.
- Huges and Kettner make a tube preamp pedal called the tube factor. The newer versions of this pedal seem to be predicated more towards overdrive but the original versions sounded quite good for a clean fendery tone.
- Effectrode makes a Fender/Dumble preamp pedal called the blackbird. I have not tried it but have really enjoyed the other tube pedals of theirs that I've tried. They go for $469 new.
- Ethos makes several transistor based pedals that do a great job sounding like a dumble clean and dirty tube amp. To me, they are not quite as tube-like as the other solutions in this article but are small and extremely versatile.
- Tech 21 blonde pedal is a transistor amp which emulates various fender amps. Like the ethos, I don't think it quite stands up to a real vacuum tube or any of the modeling solutions I've presented but it's worth a look-see.
Let me know if there's anything else you think I should mention...