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The recent string of COVID-related closures have had a lasting impact on many guitar players who for the first time since their instrument’s inception have had their playing environment reduced to the home, and only the home, with the nasty pandemic temporarily putting the kibosh on rehearsal studios and live venues.
This presented the guitar-playing fraternity with a particularly unique predicament from which to navigate.
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For an instrument like the guitar and its incredibly nuanced approach to gain structure, sustain, and feel, the rehearsal studio, and live stage had been something of a sanctuary. A place where amps could be pushed to their point of natural breakup, SPL numbers could be adjusted to taste with instant and intuitive reactivity, resulting in exactly the kind of tactile, organic playing experience the instrument was made for. Conversely, the prospect of being housebound was tantamount to months of unplugged noodling, headphone monitoring and (yuck) digital practice amps.
All of which had a historically tough time replicating the big amp experience.
But every cloud has a silver lining and as fate would have it, this came in the form of many guitarists finally coming to the realisation that we are actually in the midst of a golden age for digital modelling and small scale solutions in the amplification space.
The pandemic was just the perfect justification to explore them all.
Far from being the guarded, tube loving luddites they once were, the modern guitarist is today spoilt for choice when it comes to small-scale, volume-controlled amp options, a bi-product of some massive advancements in onboard DSP, realistic impulse response algorithms, and remote in-app connectivity.
Leading the charge in this cutting-edge space are Americans Positive Grid and their multi-award winning small footprint offering, Spark. The demure little amp has made such a lasting impact over its ten year history that Positive Grid are back, less than 12 months since their most recent update with a special edition pearl colourway to mark the occasion.
But what is it about Spark that has made it such a winner and so different to practice amps before it? Well we should probably start by addressing what has historically been the most criticised aspect of small scale amplifiers in general, the inherent sacrifice in tone.
This is something Spark navigates exceptionally well by way of its excellent amp modelling, proprietary loaded bass reflex cabinet, and the sheer number of tones available.
Powered by Positive Grid’s celebrated BIAS tone engine, Spark allows you to access thousands of great sounding tube amps and modeled effects without worry, with enough tonal flexibility to appease even the most scrupulous of tonehounds. In fact, thanks to Positive Grid’s online tone libraries, budding guitarists have up to 10 thousand tones to sift through with the ability to save their favourites to the onboard bankable memory.
One takeaway is how realistic the distorted and driven sounds are for an amp of this type. The onboard speaker undulates and throbs with a surprising amount of low end for such a small unit, providing a more than believable chug for heavy rhythm and fuzz lines.
The cleaner, tweedier sounds are also of high quality, eschewing so much of the dreaded 8k chirp that always seems to plague tubeless appraisals of classic combo cleanliness. Spark does a fine job of replicating the complex RMS properties and gentle speaker compression of these notoriously touch sensitive amps, making for one of the best digital options out there for comping and twangy, Steve Cropper style picking.
Not content with just providing incredibly musical replications of much larger, much louder amps, Spark also has a whole bunch of practical and functional tricks up its sleeve. For quick and easy demoing, Spark can function as a USB recording interface, perfect for jotting down ideas on the fly, while the headphone jack is a handy feature for late night practise and noodling.
In the controls department, you’ve got all the standard bass, mid, and treble knobs you would expect, as well as controls for gain, level, modulation, reverb, and delay, which also features a control for tap-tempo.
Where it differs so much from your standard amp is in the sheer number of practise options. With the amp designed to tie in with its free companion mobile app of the same name, Positive Grid’s Spark lets you link up your Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube to display chord progressions as you play in real time for the perfect all-in-one musical hub. It even lets you slow down a song’s tempo or loop a section you’re getting stuck on to make sure you nail it, with the additional voice-control option.
However, what’s possibly most enticing about it is its jamming functionality, which creates an automated bass and drum track for you to let loose over.
Aesthetically, the special edition Spark Pearl is a little smaller than the kind of radio you might see on a worksite and it feels just as portable, serving as a perfect option for mobile busker setups or home rehearsals. Music is a trade after all. Visually it is leagues more elegant, encased in a supple cream epidermis, and bearing a more than passing resemblance to expensive luggage; the grille on the face of the unit is as Goyard as it is classic British stack. It even has a leather handle!
The knobs to control the amplifier sit atop the unit in matching black and brass, and like the cabinet itself exhibit all the build quality and sturdiness you could ask for.
Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of Spark comes in its exceptionally small footprint and the fact that its unique feature set allows it to take the place of various other appliances or pieces of equipment around the home. Its 35cm x 18cm footprint is not that much bigger than a tissue box and the fact that it can double as an awesome home Bluetooth speaker (and metronome, and interface, and backing band!) is sure to make it a friend to space-conscious six-string acolytes and nagging domestic partners alike.
With so much technological and domestic integration occurring in the home anyway, it was only a matter of time before quintessentially unhomely electronic devices like guitar amplifiers started receiving the ‘smart’ treatment.
Over the last ten years, Positive Grid, and now their flagship product, ‘Spark’, have been the guiding light for these kinds of innovations, and this new Pearl incarnation may be the best looking of the lot. Its ability to replicate tough-to-nail practice sounds, its impressive bass response, and versatility of application make it an ideal practice option even once the pandemic and everything is back to full noise.
For more information or to purchase, head to Positive Grid’s website.