Blackstar’s ID series is a family of modeling amps, from 15-watt combos to 100-watt heads, that has caught ears and raised eyebrows with a more lively and, let’s say it, organic guitar tone than is expected of the affordable modeler, ever the vessel of squishy, unconvincing burble. While so many try to capture the recorded sound of a miked amplifier, which often feels dead and distant to the player, the ID series finally does something new to invigorate response and feel. The design applies power across the speaker’s voice coil in similar ways to vacuum tubes. Whether or not this sounds like gibberish, nobody has tried this before and it is a game-changer. Modelers don’t feel this good.
That’s not the only innovation. You start with six Voices – Blackstar’s term – which it helps to think of as preamp styles: two clean, two crunch, two overdrive. But then you get to pick what kind of power tube is emulated, from six popular choices, which not only helps you home in on classic combinations – a raucous crunch with EL34s will set your widely-spread feet upon the soil of planet Marshall, say – but also new ones: what would a sweet little vintage Fender sound like powered by a massive pair of KT88 bottles? How about a Dual Rec screaming at some mild-mannered EL84s? Add in the ISF control that sweeps the EQ from British to American styles, and the control panel is like a little amp lab.
We also have gain, two volume controls (more on this later), resonance, presence, a row of buttons for saving and recalling patches, and a section for controlling built-in effects: modulation, delay, and reverb, all of which can be on at once, all of which are covered exhaustively elsewhere, and all of which are meaningless if the basic tone isn’t there. Some of them sound a bit plasticky. One of the reverbs is really good. Several sound cold and abrupt like they’re modeled on the concrete stairwells of inner city housing.
There’s also a fragile looking USB port, for speaker-emulated recording or fine editing, which would be better positioned on the back. Mini USB doesn’t take the smack of a passing knee or the yank of a stepped-on cable quite like a good old quarter inch mono jack.
Two volumes? The first emulates the power section of a tube amp, so with a high gain sound, say, you might run it lower for tight, crisp reproduction, or wind it up for a warmer, singing sound. The second is an overall master volume for the amp. So you can set the first as high as you like, with all the power tube saturation that would normally loosen masonry, yet retain total control over the actual output volume. It sounds consistently great at all volumes. You can turn it down to zero and record silently into your computer.
Sound & Feel
The ID is startling in its shift towards the kind of tone that keeps us all messing about with the absurd technology of vacuum tubes. This isn’t the end of the journey; the response is still not as live and percussive as a tube amp. But the synthetic fog, the feeling of playing through a wall of processing, has diminished. As a result, the amp is compelling and, perhaps most importantly, inspiring to play. To have this tone available at the push of a button, with no warm up, no wear out, at all volumes, is wonderful.
Then there’s the consistency of digital. No matter the humidity, barometric pressure, phase of the moon, or direction of chi, it’ll sound right, unlike that moody bastard the vacuum tube. This exciting TVP (True Valve Power) technology adds some of the chirp, squeak and creak you experience with tubes, in a way that is surprising and delightful. Notes open up and change under your fingers more like the real thing, and your approach – pick angle, pressure, string area – makes a difference.
Plug in a Les Paul and it sounds like one; guitars have discernible characters we take for granted with sensitive tube amps, but are often robbed of by modelers that seem to read any instrument as Generic Guitar, and belch out the same canned sounds, regardless of wood and electronics. The player who enjoys subtlety and nuance is usually left with a frustrating caricature that refuses to acknowledge different approaches. There is still not the immediacy, nor the dynamics, of tubes, but TVP is nonetheless an encouraging advance that will hopefully continue to be developed. Blackstar is definitely onto something. Ground has been gained.
Known as a rock/metal brand, nobody’s picking up a Blackstar who prioritizes clean tones. But the two clean voices available here are good enough that you might just find yourself happily lost, exploring new areas. They’re not sterile and dry, as you might fear, but have a pleasant sweetened quality, from studio sparkle to club grind. Clean Warm is especially nice, with some give to the tone, compressing dynamically when you play hard and chiming softly when you lighten up. Twist that ISF control towards the American side, slot in some 6L6s, and you’ve got a good base for some Fender fun. Favor the British side, rack up some EL84s, and you’re in Vox territory. The ID encourages experimenting in-between, to come up with your own virtual amps. They will get quite dirty, too, these clean voices, if you really dial up the gain, in a usable, natural way.
That’s where the next two voices take over, Crunch and Super Crunch, forming arguably the tonal peak of the ID series. From stock Sixties moan to modded high-gain howl, these tough tones for modelers to manage are present and very nicely realized. These are the sounds that make you go, “Wow – I didn’t know we were there yet,” with their unexpected complexity and bite. Double stops take on that chewy quality as the harmonies compete, muted notes seem to tug at the speaker – with those two alone you know your Van Halen repertoire is safe – and TVP gooses the whole thing with an almost indefinable vitality. (It’s been joked that there’s no purpose for the TVP button other than to demonstrate how good the technology is. You certainly never want it off, except when toggling back and forth to confirm that, yes, it is making everything better.) One side of the ISF dial provides the thicker, warmer sound associated with the UK; sweeping counter-clockwise slims it down and adds some sizzle, until you can picture a worn black and gold head on some Californian modder’s bench.
OD1 and OD2 attempt to bring things up to date by adding a colossal amount of gain. It is difficult to see the appeal of the first; gain, like acceleration, is exhilarating, but benefits from control. OD1 heaps on the roar of distortion, but is indistinct around the edges, like playing through gravel, making it only really useful for a couple of plodding sub-genres. OD2 has participated in an extreme and grueling as-seen-on-TV workout program, and tightens all of this up admirably to deliver silly grin levels of chunk beneath your fingers. There’s more than enough distortion for anyone, and while it sounds a bit flat and over saturated in the leads, as these sounds do, it makes for crushing rhythm work, assisted by an enormous low end thump. The ID:60 has a slotted port in the back to aid this; even the ID:100 head hooked up to a Marshall 4×12 did not pound the ground like this.
The mystery internal 4 Ohm speaker is a bit hard and cold sounding when brand new, with a chesty upper bass. Six hours break-in with a punishing dubstep playlist put some miles on it, and was worth doing, making things more spongy and warm. All voices share a slightly nasal midrange, likely cast by this 12-incher.
The ID is not built solely with the recording musician in mind. Resonance and Presence settings have an effect on the tone obtained when recording directly from the amp’s USB port, but they are not programmable. So if you save a patch called Song 12 Rhythm, hoping to call that up in a week and continue working on your track, the tone may not match what you did before. You have to commit to never moving those knobs. This is a concession to the gigging musician, who wants to tune resonance and presence to the venue, then have them remain static while he switches patches all night for his set. With its “loud as valve” marketing, perhaps it should be no surprise who the series is aimed at.
Still, there are some nice recording features. First, the level is very healthy coming into the DAW via USB. The stereo track sounds pretty big and amp-like, but might not have the top end you crave; you can select from two mono channels instead, one of which sounds like a mic placed closer to center of the guitar speaker for more highs, the other more like an edge-of-cone position for body and girth. The recorded sound can be a bit lo-fi, like it’s output at 22khz (it’s not, of course, it supports 44 and 48). There’s also a raw guitar signal selectable here to facilitate reamping.
The amplifier is audio class compliant, requiring no driver in order to show up in your recording software. To update firmware, edit effects more finely, and store more patches than the 12 available from the control panel, you must use Blackstar’s Insider software. This interface, built inadvisedly on Microsoft’s Silverlight platform, is not well-loved, but performed well enough under Mac OS 10.6.8 during this review.
Here is a short demo of the ID:60 recorded directly into GarageBand via USB, with no effects or post production.
Look & Design
The TVP label, reminiscent of the ‘TRY ME!’ stickers on kids’ toys, designed to draw attention to the amp’s strongest feature, looks permanent, but is thankfully removable. Control knobs feel light, and I don’t have the greatest confidence in how the lit buttons will perform in five years.
If playing a preset, with say some reverb, there will be seven bright LEDs of various colors beaming from the front panel; more with added effects, and a blinking one for tap tempo. This kind of thing is especially obvious on a darkened stage. Some tube players are not proud to play digital amps for convenience, or would at least prefer not to advertise the fact. While not quite at Peavey VIP levels of gaudiness, a Christmas tree of large multicolored lights on the front is like saying “digital amp here!” Even at home, you might find this takes you out of the tube dream, so painstakingly engineered, when you see your cable snaking into something so computery.
Other digital cues occasionally break the spell of the amp’s warm, engrossing, almost-tube tone. There’s a tiny but demonstrable latency as the signal is processed and output. Sustain a note on the crunch channels – where the best tones live – and as it trails off you’ll hear a halo of white noise around the note. Blackstar is trying to hide this with a non-configurable noise gate on these channels, so when you stop playing entirely, the noise cuts off. But noise gates create problems with attack and decay; playing staccato with the volume rolled back, you get a violin effect as the attack swells in for each note. Open strings that have faded away will come pulsing back in as you play new notes and the gate reopens. There’s an unnatural feel to the hiss coming and going all the time, the same way that dynamic contrast on a TV causes the black level to fluctuate distractingly. The noise gate cannot currently be disabled on these channels – a frustrating design choice. The brutal gate on the two OD channels, however, can be turned off via the Insider software.
[Update, January 1st, 2017: Remarkably, more than two years later, Blackstar has finally fixed the noise gate issue. A free firmware update, v1.5.3, lowers the noise floor to the point that the company presumably feels comfortable letting us turn off the gate entirely. Notes now trail off naturally, and the amp responds normally to rolling back the guitar’s volume control. With that, one major caveat about the series’ performance is erased. It should have taken a couple of months instead of a couple of years, but Blackstar came through in the end. Well done to the members of the official forum that would not shut up about the problem since the beginning.]
Current entry-level modelers have a history of noise gate issues: the Fender Mustang, Peavey VIP, Yamaha THR10, and these Blackstars all have smears on their records. A simple rule: the gate should not default to ‘on’. Every manufacturer wants to emulate the sound and feel of tube amps. A robotic signal jammer that hops in and out of the sound does not achieve this, affecting attack, sustain, and general continuity. Woe betide the dynamic player, used to tube response, who rolls back his guitar’s volume for more delicate phrases and finds himself playing in Morse code. Nobody expects a $4,000 boutique tube amp to be silent, so why try to pretend your company’s $300 modeler is? It just creates problems. The default should be ‘off’ and it should be switchable on the amp itself, without requiring connection to a computer.
The Blackstar ID amp’s approach is frequently inelegant – the gaudy lights, the always-on noise gate, the Silverlight-reliant software, the processing lag. But when you’re playing it, connecting with your music, coaxing out those emotive tones you want to hear, lost in that reverie, such shortcomings certainly tend to shrink. Particularly for fans of high gain Marshall sounds, tired of the synthetic mush typically mustered by modelers in this area, the argument could be made that the leaps made here earn the amp forgiveness for its flaws.
Viewed as an intriguing prototype whose purchase will fund the second generation of a worthy technology, the ID offers a lot of fun and exploration, slotting nicely into a broader amp collection. Viewed as a final product, with plenty of competition, that better damn well do everything right, the ID is likely to frustrate at some point, particularly as a musician’s only amp.