found myself gravitating toward the dual-stage
preamp settings, as they were a little meatier,
less anemic. Notched Strat-tones were particularly gratifying in the “low drive” stage with the
EL84 output selected—just the right mixture
of grit and chime for a terrific blues tone that
went from thick and kind of jangly to a fat grind
with warm, sweet sustain by using nothing but
the guitar’s volume knob.
The single-state preamp setting did turn out
to be very useful for smooth, mellow clean
tones from the Gibson’s BurstBuckers and
the Deusenberg’s P- 90 and Grand Vintage
humbucker. And, after switching out the
6V6 output tube with an EL34, setting the
“low drive” Gain about halfway and cranking the Master, the ZenTone did a pretty
decent imitation of a much bigger, British-style amp—albeit at much lower volume. I
did find myself wishing for just a bit more of
the richness and harmonic complexity that a
great Class A amp can deliver, but I was nevertheless quite impressed with the Zen Tone’s
tonal range and precise tone shaping ability.
Recording the amp is a breeze—I ran the
unbalanced line out directly into an Mbox,
and was immediately rewarded with same
tonal range and quality I’d heard through
the external speaker. The addition of a line
level control to the tone-shaping resources
of the front panel made it perfectly easy
to dial in just the right amount for any mix.
We didn’t have the opportunity to test the
balanced XLR output (which is hot) to a mixing board; the Mbox was unable to handle
it without experiencing harsh clipping of
the line-level input, even on low settings.
That said, if you have concerns about the
Zen Tone 7’s compatability with your setup or
your interface, it’s probably worth contacting
Backline Engineering to check with them.
The Final Mojo
The Zen Tone 7 is not your ordinary low-power tube amp. While it’s not going to
give you exactly the same level of touch
sensitivity and tonal vividness as a high-end, handwired EL84 amp, it’s as good at
what it does as anything I’ve played recently. If you’re looking to outfit a small home
studio, want to avoid creating noise problems for the neighbors, and prefer a range
of very useful functions over the perfect
solution for one, specific application, the
Zen Tone 7 provides a great deal of them in
a small, well-designed package.
You want a flexible studio tool
that’s packed with tones and easily adapted to practice, recording
and performance applications.
You need the best boutique amp
tone money can buy.
Click the speaker button for sound
clips of the ZenTone 7. For descriptions of the clips, head to