Hughes & Kettner TubeMeister 18 Guitar Amp Head
By Chris Loeffler |
Looking for a multi-channel, medium wattage tube amp capable of scaling down to a single watt output in addition to built-in direct recording capabilities?
By Chris Loeffler
In the beginning, amplifiers were literally just amplification tools for an instrument. Over time, additions like tone controls for off-instrument EQ tweaks, the ability to intentionally overdrive the preamp for gain and saturation without requiring loud output volume, and multiple channels with individual gain and EQ stacks came into vogue as technology progressed and, more importantly, as the need for these features was identified by players. Today, in a world of effect pedals, direct out, and signal chain splitting, the sky is pretty much the limit for players looking for an amplifier that accommodates their specific functional needs to achieve their tone. Hughes and Kettner has clearly done its homework on what players want and need and poured all their research into their TubeMeister series.
The Hughes and Kettner TubeMeister 18 is an 18 watt tube amp powered by two 12AX7 tubes in the preamp and two EL84 tubes in the power amp that features two channels, a four-stage power soak for lower wattage output, passive EQ, easy biasing and a Red Box direct XLR output with speaker simulation. The amp head ships with a padded soft case with handles and can be switchable via pedal with the optional FS-2 footswitch.
What You Need To Know
- If you’ve never seen a Hughes and Kettner product in person, you need to understand how visually striking they all are. In the case of the TubeMeister 18, the sleek, flat black metal chassis with etched plexiglass faceplate frames the symmetrical architecture of the tubes and transformers. Hidden blue LEDs illuminate the etched lettering and cast a cool electric hue on the polished chrome transformers that sets the stage for the warm orange glow of the tubes to visually stand out. Ingenious recessed chrome handles on the side make for easy transportation without adding the bulk of bolted-on handles. German engineering is on full display with the TubeMeister 18, with a seamless metal enclosure and a smooth, “just right” feel to the chrome knobs that have a gratifying amount of resistance and feel solidly connected to the faceplate.
- The Hughes and Kettner TubeMeister 18 features two channels, switchable via two push-buttons on the front of the amp or via footswitch with the optional FS-2 switch. The first channel is labeled Clean, and offers a warm and fairly neutral tone that is fairly flat in frequency; it sounds like a clean amp should without being too clinical or sterile and has pleasant, rounded harmonic structure. The Gain control dials up the preamp a bit, giving slightly more compression and grit to the tone. At the highest gain setting, humbuckers produce a satisfying crunch when digging in. The Volume knob controls the output volume from the power amp to the speakers, allowing users to boost or reduce their overall volume once they’ve found the ideal amount of saturation in the Gain knob. Power amp tube saturation happens with the Volume control turned all the way up and the Gain knob anywhere in the more extreme half of the sweep.
- The Lead channel features the same controls and functionality as the Clean channel, but its Gain knob starts off almost exactly where the gain ended on the Clean channel. At the lowest Gain setting the Lead channel sounds like a clean amp being pushed too hard. The sweep from there to half-way slowly introduces more crunch and bite without adding too much compression. By the mid-point in the Gain sweep the distortion becomes tight and aggressive with an incredibly quick and responsive attack. Anywhere beyond noon takes you further and further into saturated, modern metal territory. The Lead Boost button (or footswitch) only applies to the Lead channel and aggressively re-voices and doubles the distortion, leading to tighter, full frequency tones and increased sustain and compression at even the lowest Gain setting.
- The amplifier features a passive tone stack featuring Bass, Mid, and Treble controls that is shared between the two channels. All three controls sound natural and subtle throughout their sweep and lack the filter-swept sound of many amplifier EQ sections. Essentially, they seem to boost presence of the given frequency range as a whole rather than spike a pinpointed frequency.
- The TubeMeister 18 features a built-in power soak (attenuator) that reduces the wattage produced by the power amp section with the intention of allowing players to achieve their ideal mix of preamp and power amp tube distortion at lower volumes. Defaulting at 18 watts, the amp’s output can be reduced to 5 or 1 watt and even be entirely muted. Like any power soak, the core tone of the amp stays the same as the volume is decreased, but tweaks will likely need to be made to keep the tone from getting too boxy or losing too much high-end as you toggle from 18 to 5 to 1 watt. Obviously, volume and the behavior of the speaker is a part of the tone, so by changing what the speaker is being hit with there will need to be adjustments. In muted mode, the output to the speaker is disabled (normally a big no-no), allowing silent output through the Red Box balanced XLR output with speaker simulation. Run straight into the mixer at a live gig, the amp’s core tone stays intact and sounds convincing and present, if a bit less dimensional and rounded without a guitar speaker to finish the tone shaping. Just a touch of added reverb from the board does a lot to “unflatten” the tone, and even running direct without the aid of effects it sounds more natural and authentic than most modelers or direct boxes.
- Although warm, the amp can’t help but sound modern given how full-frequency the tone is. Vintage, sagged distortion is pretty hard to wrestle out of the amp without the help of a distortion pedal.
There is a lot happening in this little amp… three (well, two, technically) channels, a quad-stage power soak, easy biasing power amp section, and effects loop, and a built-in balanced direct out with speaker simulation. This sort of flexibility comes with no sacrifice in tone, making it equally viable for country, rock, metal, and jazz players looking for solid tone in a classy package. Cleans are high-fidelity without sounding sterile and there is a fair amount of play with vintage crunch before the gain tightens into what can only be described as the quintessential tone for modern heavy metal.