Best Amps in a Box Leave a comment

The iconic tube amps of yesteryear—Vox, Marshall, Fender—each had their own unique tonal fingerprints that shaped the sounds of their players. The Beatles wouldn’t be the same without their Vox amps, and the wail of the guitar solo in “Hotel California” can’t be played on anything other than a Fender, right?

What if you want to have different classic sounds available on-demand? Before you run out and buy a Marshall stack, Twin Reverb, and an A/B switch, check out these pedals known as “Amps in a Box” (AIAB). Although those listed here take several different approaches, these units essentially emulate the preamps of classic amps, with much more tonal control than standard overdrive pedals. The end result is more versatility on your pedal board than you ever thought you could put into that 15w solid state practice combo.


Boss FBM-1 ($110-$180)

The crackly yet warm grit of an overdriven Fender amp is as classically American as baseball and apple pie—think the opening chords of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” If you’re seeking this tone and looking to delve into the world of AIAB pedals, check out Boss’s FBM-1, which digitally emulates the ‘59 Fender Bassman amp.

Officially licensed by Fender (hence the logo and trademark tweed-colored chassis), the FBM-1 works well as an overdrive pedal, but it goes further. A separate “bright in” jack recreates the Bassman’s bright setting for crisp treble, and the 3-band EQ allows for use as a “pre-gain” pedal that pairs well with other overdrive pedals while retaining quintessentially Fender tone colors. The FBM-1 has been discontinued, but used models are easily obtained for well under $200.


Catalinbread Galileo MK II ($170)

You often hear the adjective “jangly” in reference to the British drive of the legendary Vox AC30. Players like Queen’s Brian May achieved this bright driven jangle by using separate treble boosters on top of their amps like the Dallas Rangemaster. This Vox/Rangemaster combo is what Catalinbread emulates in the Galileo MK-II (get the “Bohemian Rhapsody” reference?).

Although it doesn’t look too different from your regular 3-knob drive pedal, the Galileo is quite versatile. It has clean and driven sounds that are very responsive to your guitar’s pickups, volume knobs, and whatever other drive units you’re stacking onto it. The all-analog circuitry uses JFET transistors, and with the treble boost providing all the unit’s gain, you’ve got a combination of jangle and grit that will cut through the sludgiest mix.


Wampler Plexi Drive Deluxe ($239)

If your British amp tastes trend more toward Marshall crunch than Vox jangle, check out the Plexi Drive Deluxe, which Wampler brashly proclaims is an MIAB (we’ll let you figure out that acronym on your own). To replicate that Marshall tone that basically invented the late-’60s hard rock of Cream, Zeppelin, and Hendrix, the Plexi Drive boasts gain, a switchable boost for mids, and a 3-band EQ. Want a searing lead? Hit the bright boost. How about the thumping boom of a full stack of Celestions? Yeah, there’s a bass boost too.

Virtually any classic Marshall sound is obtainable with this pedal, from vintage ‘68 Plexi, to  arena crunch of the JTM-45, to the scream of a JCM-800. Sidenote: if your tastes run more American ‘80s than British ‘70s, seek out Wampler’s discontinued Triple Wreck, which did for Mesa what the Plexi Drive does for Marshall.


Friedman Be-od Deluxe Overdrive Pedal ($270)

It may have slightly less name-recognition than Fender or Marshall, but Dave Friedman has been producing high-end tube amps for decades, shaping the sounds of players like Eddie Van Halen and Jerry Cantrell. While not explicitly touted as an AIAB, the BE-OD Deluxe is more than capable of grafting the Friedman sound onto whatever amp you plug it into. Also, like the rest of the units featured here, it’s much more than just a drive pedal.

Based on the simpler 3-knob BE-OD, the Deluxe adds a separate lower-gain channel and more midrange controls, making it possible to switch quickly from rhythm to lead modes, all with the crunchy British distortion that you get from the Friedman BE-100 tube amp. The “tight” switch engages a more modern, responsive feel than a wide-open vintage roar. Whether used as a fine-tuned AIAB or just as a drive pedal, the BE-OD deluxe will take your tone into territory usually occupied by 4-figure amps.


Sansamp GT2 Tube Amp Emulator ($225)

SansAmp is one of the originators of AIAB pedal development. Whereas most of the other pedals featured here focus on emulating one specific brand of tube amp, the GT2 gives you a choice of several styles. A three-way switch toggles from a British Marshall-style drive, to a Fender tweed, or to a “California” mode—a new school, rectifier-type high gain. Going further, you can tweak these different amp models with different gain level mods, and there’s even a 3-way switch that simulates mic placement.

The SansAmp approaches modeling amp territory while retaining all-analog circuitry. It could be the end-all drive/tone pedal for your favorite amp, or paired with a DI box could even be an emergency backup in case of an amp malfunction, plugging directly into a mixer. If only it served as a power amp, too.


Quilter Interblock 45 ($229)

If you’re being technical, all of the pedals on this list would more appropriately be “preamps in a box.” They replicate the drive and tone of a unit’s preamp, but still require some sort of power amp to provide the wattage for a full volume sound. The Quilter Interblock 45, on the other hand, puts a preamp and a 45-watt power amp into an enclosure the size of a large pedal. All you need to do is plug it into your favorite speaker cab or the mixer. 

Pat Quilter has spent the past few decades fine tuning circuitry that emulates a Fender-style overdrive, and online forums are full of reviews gushing that they can barely tell the difference between a Quilter and a tube amp. With a separate effects loop, line-out/headphone jack, and variable ohm selection, the Interblock is as AIAB as it gets. Just be sure to set it at the end of your pedal chain, because its 45 watts can destroy any downstream effects pedal.


Conclusion

The pedals listed here run a wide range. Some are basically souped-up drive units that give you the gain and tone of specific amps. Others are less specific, but they give you a huge palette for sculpting overdrive tube tones that one single expensive amp could never do. 

  • If you’ve got a basic solid state combo amp and desire a more classic vintage tone, start with something like the Boss, Catalinbread, or Wampler. You can even keep multiple AIAB units on your board, jumping from one sound to another with a tap of your foot.
  • On the other hand, if you want a more versatile unit with a full range of classic drive sounds, the SansAmp is the clear winner. Have you moved past large amps completely? The Quilter could be a saving grace for your budget and your back. 

Best of all, every unit here costs well under $300. We’ve got more options for diverse sounds (often analog) at a lower cost than ever before, so what more could you ask for?

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