Yamaha’s range of loaf-sized 10-watt practice amps has proven enormously popular, even with the tone snobs; positioned as an addition to, rather than a replacement for, the guitarist’s “real” amp, the THR10s acknowledge their position in the food chain, and thrive in it. These are the modelers we can enjoy free of distrust, leaving only fun. Here we’ll look at the THR10X, which specializes in filthy high-gain tones.
Let there be no doubt that aesthetics helped Yamaha convince so many players they needed a desktop practice amp. It’s such an attractive little package, with the rounded corners, metal case and faux tube glow. You want it before you’ve heard it. This version, with its flat green paint and stenciled markings, looks like Master Chief’s lunch box. They’re all cute enough and small enough to look good in an office, living room or bedroom. You get a generous lengthy power cable to help create a little noodling zone anywhere you fancy. It’ll even run on batteries, if you want to rock the yard over summer. You’ll find yourself setting up in a corner here or an armchair there and wailing away for hours.
The desktop amp was not much of a market before. You might have tried to get by with a Pignose, especially if you saw Crossroads, but rock and metal would have been out of reach. There were those novelty Marshall micro amps that clipped to your belt like a walkie-talkie – and sounded like one, too. The Roland Cube series is probably the most popular all-in-one mini amplifier, but of all the things it gets right, distortion is not one of them. Despite the leaps made by the Yamaha THR series, it retains an appealing humility; it’s not trying to be your everything, the ultimate amp; it’s pitched as a fun, convenient guitar buddy while you are away from the real thing.
Let us make our way around the Amp dial, visiting each gainy monster provided by the THR10X. It must be said that the list represents a strange choice of non-aspirational, mid-range amps. If the modeling process is as good as it seems, Yamaha, give us a Cameron, a Fortin, maybe a Diezel! Luckily there are some hot and tasty tones to be found amid Yamaha’s Craigslist selection of amps, but you can’t help but puzzle over the choices, nor how the sweet profiling setup could have been used to recreate more lusted-after models.
- Power I: Not the finest introduction to 10X tone, with a rumbling, rubbery bottom end that never quite grips like you want it to, paired with the bad kind of angry mids and a buzzy top end – though it does have a pleasant, percussive chocka-chock when you rake across the strings. Playing on the neck pickup gives away the weakness of Power I; it’s the kind of sound where you’re always checking your tone knob is up full. Same results with a various guitars. Winding back the guitar’s volume lets the tone open up, and results in a nice dirty blues tone, where you can actually hear some definition and hollowness from your pickups.
- Power II: Yamaha says this is the lead channel of an ENGL Powerball, where Power I models the rhythm channel, so it’s not wildly different besides ladling on a lot more gain. It does significantly reduce the nasal mids. Upper register shredding makes the most of this one, the notes flying off easily thanks to crazy saturation and benefiting from a more balanced tone than Power I. But as you reach the wound strings it’s still too muddy and indistinct, robbing low solo notes of their presence and palm muted riffs of their chunk. What good is a metal tone that can’t chug?
- Brown I: Get comfortable as you turn the dial to Brown I, because you’re going to be here a while. The wild, gritty midrange of a Greenback appears – the sound rock guitar should make – that Eddie drawl ebbs from your fingers, and the pickups open up to be heard. The bottom end isn’t as ambitious as the ENGL models, and is clearer and tighter for it. All manner of happy overtones come pinwheeling off the fundamentals. It’s not just canned EVH, but canned hot guitar tone in general. With the right approach you’ll get ZZ Top, Yngwie, even you.
- Brown II: The Yamaha rep describes this as later era EVH, a somewhat vague description when, depending on your perspective, that could hint at anything from the Peavey 5150 to today’s Fender line. It ups the distortion, smooths down that vintage hard rock hump in the mids, and conjures some low end for a more modern take, but shares the open characteristics and agitated harmonics of Brown I. Which is best comes down to your mood at that moment, but both gobble up hours of practice time, and both suggest that Yamaha’s process in building these sounds deserves gratitude and encouragement.
- Southern Hi: As a parting gift, the THR10X takes us to the edge of its capabilities, emulating the relentless buzz saw of Dimebag Darrel’s guitar tone. Though many are miffed by the idea of modeling Dime’s Randall RG100, a solid state amp, the manual mentions 6L6 tubes, hinting at an early Krank Revolution. If you’re a bedroom brutalist, this is where you’ll find the meanest tones in the THR10X, but the illusion is in danger of shattering. Though certainly up to the job of jamming along with some heavy music, asking for so much grind and aggression from a combo amp that isn’t even the size of a bookshelf speaker makes for an aww-isn’t-that-brave kind of novelty rather than something you want to spend a lot of time with. There’s a sense of narrow bandwidth on the input, too, that makes some playing counter-intuitive: where, with a real tube amp, to get the tightest, densest riffage you dig in extra hard with the pick and really lean into the muting, this approach overwhelms the 10X, turning the low end to mush. Paradoxically you have to use as light a touch as possible to get the hardest-hitting result, which sounds pretty good but feels bloody strange.
- Cleans: Despite the high gain focus, three clean settings are thoughtfully provided. The first, Flat, caters for the myriad things you may want to connect without the coloration of an amp sim: mics, keyboards, all manner of audio toys; if you can get a quarter inch jack on it, you can get it into the THR10X. The Bass setting models an unspecified tube-powered bass amp, so that we guitar nerds can do justice to the lower frequencies, so often disrespected with a direct recording. Lastly, Clean does a surprisingly pretty Fender clean, without perhaps the stridency or bite of the real thing, but a lush, inspiring character that will come in handy for those bits between the noise. The THR’s emulation of power tube distortion can perhaps best be demonstrated here: even with the gain right up, you’ll get no dirt from this model until you turn up the Master, bringing in not just distortion, but compression, warmth, and a loss of low end articulation, while staying very musical.
In the interests of managing expectations, it is worth pointing out that no matter how cool its tones are or how fun it is to play, the THR10X is not magical; it is bound by some severe limitations. It sounds brilliant – for a digital amp the size of a toaster. It doesn’t sound like a stack, a half-stack, or even a 1×12 combo. It can sound a bit like those things heard on a song on the radio. We are talking about a couple of three-inch speakers in a small metal and plastic box. It is clear, if you open up that box, that the team at Yamaha has done what it could to push a big sound out of a little space; most of the inside of a THR is a bass reflex system. Given the success of this series, it seems likely there will be a THR20 one day with, one hopes, larger speakers. Blackstar’s ID Core 20, another diminutive stereo modeler, sounds fatter, with more real-amp feel, thanks to dual five-inch speakers.
Hook it up to a computer and you’ll find that, in the digital domain, unconstrained by physical proportions, there’s nothing cute about the THR10X. It sounds big, with great spread and balance, a sense of scale that quickly builds that wall-of-guitars effect on a recording. It’s not as raw as some might like – quite a ‘final’ sound – but less need for filters and EQ means you get a better-sounding demo quicker, and can focus on playing and editing. The amp can even function as a kind of external soundcard and speakers, with the whole mix coming through. The signal level seen by your recording software is not tied to the THR10X’s real world, audible output, so you can turn down as low as you like, or even record silently. It excels as a desktop recording amp.
Here is a short demo recorded with the THR10X into GarageBand. There are three tracks: two rhythm guitars panned left and right, and one solo guitar down the middle. Totally raw with no effects or EQ.
The software used to control the amp on your computer screen has some quirks, particularly around saving tones, but is useful once you’ve got the hang of it. Running it in one window while recording software runs in another works well. Besides saving and editing patches, which it helps to name after specific songs or tracks, you gain access to some trinkets that are otherwise unavailable. A pop up menu lets you assign different virtual cabs to your sounds, which really helps get the recorded tone you want. Though they vary in character from a warm vintage Marshall to a crisp new Diezel, all five types are 4x12s, which was a bit short sighted. Some 1×12 options would have been nice, as high gain heads can record great through these more focused, less tubby cabinets. There’s finer control over effects than can be managed with the physical knobs, a compressor that is only available here, and controls for the THR’s nefarious noise gate.
The THR10X has the sneakiest noise gate it the business. For a start, it is on every sound by default, and requires connection to a computer to be disabled. It’s not set globally, either; you’ve got to turn it off for each patch and save the patch in that state. If you are sitting playing one of your noise-gate-less sounds, and decide to try a new tone, the gate will sneak back on as soon as you turn the Amp dial. Least forgivable of all, the noise gate is automatically reapplied each time the power is turned on. You can noodle away happily on one of your carefully edited gate-free patches, turn off, come back the next day, turn on, and that little bastard gate will be on again! This goes beyond trying to help you and becomes trying to force something on you, a distressing quality in any technology. Fix this, Yamaha – you’re nicer than this.
Despite this quirk, or the fact that three of the five amp models are largely superfluous, it’s impossible not to love the THR10X. The brown sounds are not just one-trick, stripy red and white ponies, but tremendously enjoyable hot-rodded Marshall tones that adapt effortlessly to a number of styles. The format of a tiny, warm sounding modeler makes more sense for practice and play-along than a tube amp, which always really wants to be ten times louder than you need in such situations. The terrific recording features just put it over the top.