Let’s Get Small
How’s everyone doing? This month we’ll take
another little trip down memory lane. You may
have noticed how often I’ve mentioned tiny,
5-watt (or less) practice amplifiers for recording.
One of my recent favorites has been the Fender
Champion 600. You might remember a few
issues back, when I was recording late into the
wee hours of the morning? I stumbled across a
particular signal chain that sounded just stellar
at pin-drop volume: my guitar plugged into a
BJFE Baby Blue Overdrive pedal and connected
directly to the input of the Champion 600. From
there, I used a really cool-sounding combination
of a small diaphragm condenser microphone
(Neumann KM 184), connected to my Great
River ME-1NV mic preamp right before it hit my
Pro Tools Digi 002 Rack.
Kay Model 703
So far, this combination has been great.
However, on a recent trip out to California, I
rounded up a few dusty old relics of mine that
had been in storage for many years at a friend’s
recording studio. They had been patiently waiting up in the rafters for me to pack up and ship
home. There were three little student-model
combos in total: an early-sixties Kalamazoo
Model One, a really cute Kay Model 703 from
the mid-sixties, and a Gibson Skylark GA-5T
from the late sixties.
After I pulled them down, I fired them up and
had a listen. I had brought a couple of very
familiar overdrive pedals with me to California,
since I was quite curious to hear how these little
monsters would sound when I pushed them a
bit harder. Previously (some eleven years ago), I
had only used the Kalamazoo’s Volume control
to dial in the amp’s output level—with just a
quick tweak of the Tone control to adjust its
approximate tonal character. But since then, I
have discovered that with the judicious use of
any number of great overdrive/distortion/fuzz
pedals, amps like this could yield some very big
sounds indeed. And all three of these student
practice amps happen to have Alnico magnet
speakers in them, too!
Gibson Skylark GA-5T
The Kalamazoo Model One has one RCA 6BQ5
(aka EL84) output tube, along with a single
RCA 12AX7A preamp tube, and sports an old-fashioned RCA 6X4 tube rectifier. The single,
class-A EL84 puts out roughly 5 to 7 watts
RMS, and gives you a nice, warm tone at lower
to medium volumes.
Inside the Kay Model 703, the layout is similar to the Kalamazoo. However, it has some
odd tube choices when compared to today’s
modern practice amps: a 35Z5 rectifier tube;
a 50L6 model output tube that puts out a
healthy 3. 8 watts (using cathode-bias at 200V,
according to the RCA Receiving Tube Manual);
and a 12AU6 pentode preamp tube positioned in the corner of the amplifier’s chassis.
The Kay 703 features a very small speaker
(no more than 6 to 8 inches in diameter). Is
this something that might’ve been used for a
Hawaiian lapsteel guitar? It definitely has that
vibe to it. Regardless of its intended original
application, there’s a rock ‘n’ roll giant lurking
inside. And, as if that weren’t enough, there
are three instrument inputs on this amp, too!
With the amps all sitting in the main recording
room of the studio, the first pedal to hit the
Kalamazoo’s main input jack was a Crowther
Audio Hotcake. This was more than great, as the
sound I heard emanating from the 10” off-brand
speaker was akin to a lovely sounding roar! It
was stunning, to be quite honest. Single-coil
guitars sound absolutely righteous through the
Kalamazoo Model One. Apparently, it can be
any style of single coil, too, whether they’re
“small aperture” single coil pickups (like your
typical narrower Fender pickups) or any larger
single coils, such as the old-style DeArmond
Dynasonics used back in the mid-fifties.
It’s important here to note that you should
experiment with the various instruments in your
own collection, as you’ll likely find that some will
bond instantly with one particular amplifier, while
other guitars will have you sitting on the fence.
Believe me, you’ll know immediately which guitar works when you plug it in. There have been
some really magical moments for me since I’ve
gotten these little tone machines back.
Kalamazoo Model One
Just in case you’re wondering, I paid $5 for the
Skylark and $25 for the Kalamazoo Model One.
The Kay 703 came with a guitar—I paid a grand
total of $20 for both of them. The moral of this
story: keep your eyes peeled for neighborhood
garage sales. Tonal treasures are living right under
your nose. Have fun; we’ll see you next month.
The Gibson Skylark GA-5T uses a 6EU7 preamp tube. A pair of EL84s power the combo,
giving it about 12 to 15 watts of power. There
is also a 6C4 tube found inside this combo.
One of the coolest things about the Skylark
GA-5T is the tremolo circuit, which is very, very
deep and rich sounding. This feature alone
could make the amp highly useful for recording cool sound effects.
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