If you find you have nothing to do for the next, say, five years, here’s a fun experiment: enter the phrase “best channel switching head” into Google and be prepared to find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes. The fallacy of the word “best” in this context really does invite all kinds of open-ended arguments. What’s best for one guitarist may not be best for another, and – as many of us have learned at great expense – what’s best for you this year might not be best for you next year. Change band, change guitar, expand your stylistic horizons, or simply get bored of your sound, and your “greatest channel switching amp in the world” can suddenly sound turn out to be the wrong tool for the job, or it might still sound good but feel stylistically restrictive. In a world where fuzzy concepts like “three-dimensionality”, “boutiquey” and my personal favourite “mojo” are thrown around with abandon, it’s a wonder anybody ever manages to choose an amp at all!
So how does a guitarist go about finding the best channel switcher for his/her needs? Some of us don’t like relying on pedals for too many of our layers of dirt, or prefer the feel of preamp distortion. There are a few basic concepts that seem to appeal to most guitarists: a bouncy, spanky “Fendery” clean with the capacity for musical break-up; a “Plexi-ish” or “800-esque” mid gain sound with expressiveness, bite and punch in equal measure; a “modded Marshall” kind of higher gain sound which balances character, dynamics, thickness and cut and which still cleans up; and perhaps the ability to boost this sound into “metal territory” whilst staying tight enough for palm mutes, yet harmonically rich enough for fluid lead playing. These attributes certainly don’t run the gamut of guitarists’ musical desires, but a channel switching amp that ticks most of these boxes does at least stand a good chance of appealing to a lot of players.
The Bogner Ecstasy appeared in 100A (6L6) and 100B (EL34) form in the early 1990s. With a clean channel based on a blackface Super Reverb/Deluxe Reverb preamp, a Plexi mode, and two genre-defying dirt channels with built in boosts and variable bright switches, it already appeared to be the platform of many guitarists’ dreams. Factor in the Excursion controls, pentode/triode switching, flexible and transparent FX loop, assignable speaker cabinet outputs, and Class A mode and it really began to look like a whole toolkit in a box. A quick listen through three or four tracks of Steve Vai’s Alien Love Secrets will verify that the 100A was exactly that. Its chiming, complex, harmonically rich drive tones and woody bottom end effortlessly spanned the rock and metal worlds whilst redefining the word “boutique”, and its cleans and semi-cleans sounded simply breathtaking (The Boy From Seattle, anybody?). Couple that with the fact you could actually HEAR Vai rolling back and laying off to clean up his signal, and this was starting to sound like a very expressive tool indeed.
I was late to the Ecstasy party (pardon the analogy), and the 100 series didn’t last that long, (1992-1994 and very limited numbers) so I picked up the vastly more widely available 101B, which has been made continuously since 1995. This has a slightly more feature-rich front panel with assignable presence and excursion controls, and a more comprehensive seven-button footswitch with a boost per channel, a standby mute, and an FX loop on/off switch. Reinhold Bogner had tweaked the circuits and the 101-series amps are generally considered to be a little fatter, gainier and darker sounding. The Class A/AB switching had been relegated to the options list and the assignable cabinet outputs had been deleted altogether (apparently, nobody ever used them!). The 101-series amps can appear pretty intimidating to the uninitiated, but at their heart they contain a great Fendery clean with its own EQ section, two absolutely definitive gain channels which share an EQ section, and a Plexi mode which deletes two gain stages and can be assigned to one gain channel or the other. So if you were more of a classic rock player, you might assign Plexi mode to the Red channel and use the boosted Blue channel for your highest gain sounds, or if you were a modern metal player, you might assign Plexi mode to your little-used Blue channel and have it set up for the occasional “breaking-up” clean. The controls are, in fact, flexible enough to ignore Plexi mode altogether and achieve those sounds in the unboosted Blue channel if you desire. Boosted Blue channel is also gainy and tight enough to double as a hard rock rhythm channel if needed. I’ve gigged the amp all three ways; the assignable Plexi mode really does alter the nature of the beast.
The assignable presence control (Presence B) would normally be put to best use when assigned to the clean channel, with Presence A acting as a global control for the drive channels, but if you want two radically different drive textures, or perhaps a specific presence control for your Plexi channel, the 101 series gives you that option. From there, you can tailor the gain character of each drive channel individually with the three-position bright switches (which are situated pre-gain; and have progressively less effect as gain increases). You can also alter the bottom end response of the channels with the three-position Excursion controls (one of which “follows” the assigned presence control). Finally the Structure switch allows you to globally reduce the gain of your drive channels (great for those blues or country gigs) and the 100w/50w and pentode/triode switching allow you to tailor the overall response of the amp to your performance environment.
The feature set is comprehensive to say the least, but most Ecstasy owners will tell you the same thing: if you’re new to the amp, leave everything on its highest setting (100w, pentode, structure H, no Plexi mode) and take some time to get used to what the amp has to offer as standard. The Ecstasy does come in for some flak for sounding relatively dark overall, but in fact a lot of this is due to the smooth, audio taper tone stack, which means the more Marshally sounds that we all love begin to appear at 6 and above on most of the dials. In fact – disregarding the pot taper – both treble and mid pots actually conform to traditional Marshall tone stack values. Also, the clean channel displays its true Fendery nature with its volume maxed and the gain pot used as a volume control. B1 is the “Fender” value, and the clean presence can be kept surprisingly low or even off for the most authentic response. Assign Presence B to the clean channel to achieve this. Taking the time to understand these few basic concepts reduces the capacity for Ecstasy user error to almost nil. Call it Room 101…
With the disclaimers out of the way, let’s begin exploring the channels.
The Ecstasy’s USP has always been its Blue channel. It treads well-worn Marshall mid-gain territory, yet performs in a way that somehow just seems “more polished” on first listen. The feel is supernaturally addictive – it’s like putting on an old pair of slippers from the first time you use it. If you find the dynamics of a good JCM 800 perfect, but the high midrange perhaps a shade too brash or the bottom end lacking, the unboosted blue channel with everything at 6 or 7 will simply haunt you. The gain structure responds exquisitely to your touch and your guitar’s controls; and has a magical bite or fur which seems to float around the periphery of a note – smouldering and blooming without ever becoming harsh. Boost the blue channel and we are firmly in early Van Halen territory; the circuit seems to bring out the perfect low end “thonk” on palm mutes, just the right amount of saturation and churning midrange on chords, and enough cut and sustain for some fairly extravagant rock lead playing. The midrange bubbles with character, infusing the most basic lines with harmonic complexity and making even the least responsive guitar sound like a million dollars. If there is one criticism that can be levelled at the blue channel, it’s that it can sound TOO good. At times, I wanted a “Harshness” dial I could turn up, or a “Richness” dial I could turn down! The Blue channel, for all its genre-defying flexibility, does impose a certain amount of that Bogner signature complexity and chewyness on everything. Even the brashest Telecaster combined with some pretty anti-social EQ settings still sounded “polished”. Maybe this channel would be too polite for Graham Coxon or Stevie Ray Vaughan. No matter though: this is one of the world’s greatest mid-gain sounds and it’s one of those expressive pallettes that – once you’ve played through it – will haunt you for the rest of your playing career. Many players have bought, sold and re-bought Bogners two or three times over for this exact reason. I myself have owned the same 101B twice already.
The Red channel simply turns all these attributes up to ten while retaining the ability to clean up. The early 101 series amps (until 2004) had a slightly lower gain Red channel which was very similar to the Blue: it is perhaps Van Halen I to the the Blue channel’s Fair Warning. The Red channel retains that perfectly judged “thonk” on palm mutes, the impossibly characterful midrange, and the hint of “sizzle” on top without ever introducing harshness or fizz. The bottom end is somehow loose and tight at the same time; you can detune to Z# and retain definition, yet power chords swell and bloom in the most musical way. Even with the midrange rolled right back (and these are some powerful dials) all of the burn and churn remains. Lead playing has never been this easy: imagine the fluidity of a Mark Series Boogie combined with the expressiveness of a good Marshall – the saturation of a 5150 with the smoothness and polish of a Soldano or a Cornford. Once again, there is a single criticism – and it’s the same one as on the Blue channel; it really is impossible to make this channel sound harsh or unpleasant in any way. First World problems…
The Green channel on these amps is perhaps the most misunderstood of any amp circuit on the market. For a true Fender clean, the channel volume (and realistically, the master volume too) must be maxed. This opens up the full available range of headroom and frequency content – which you then manage with the gain control and the (pre gain) EQ section, just like on a 1960s Fender. On the bright control, N and B1 equate to the Fender settings (although B2 can be useful with a darker guitar). 10am on the mid control matches the fixed midrange on a Super Reverb/Deluxe Reverb. Earlier Fender amps don’t have a presence control, so assign Presence B, start with it at zero and only wind it up if you find your speaker cabinet isn’t providing you with enough zest and sparkle in this setting. Set correctly (and taking into account the character of the 101B’s EL34 output tubes) this is simply one of the best clean channels in any channel switcher. A dedicated clean amp – or in fact Bogner’s own Goldfinger or Shiva – may compress more addictively or sparkle more exquisitely, but not by much. By running the gain above halfway, and optionally engaging the boost circuit (don’t forget to compensate by lowering your output volume), the Bogner’s clean channel barks like a cranked Twin, with a hint of Bassman crunch also available via the bright switches – don’t forget they are pre-gain and therefore alter gain structure as well as tonality. It still cleans up from the guitar but can’t quite approach the chime and finesse found at the more “dedicated” clean end. Overall, this is simply an incredibly flexible and musical sounding clean channel. My only gripe is that there aren’t two, as I enjoy both sides of it so much! But no matter, we still have Plexi mode…
As mentioned at the beginning of the review, Plexi mode can be assigned (via a simple switch) to whichever of the gain channels you don’t need. This will probably vary from gig to gig, and Bogner, thoughtfully, gives you the option. Essentially, it turns whichever channel you select into something approaching a 1959 model Marshall, but helpfully it has an extremely well-calibrated master volume. There isn’t bucketloads of preamp gain (just enough for, say, Pete Townshend rhythm parts or maybe an AC/DC solo or two if you’re at gig volume) but the interaction between pre and power amp is magical – in other words, turn it up for the full effect! With the power amp invited to the party, this channel has a large chunk of the dynamic response, sweet sustain and warm, crackly crunch of the original. It is a shade or two darker, but that’s the price we pay for all the flexibility built into this amp. Even at lower volumes, Plexi mode is a a very useful low gain or “breaking up” channel – but it does seem to prefer a brighter guitar for the best response. The two main Plexi-mode omissions have both been addressed in the latest 20th Anniversary Ecstasy release: the latest version has slightly more preamp gain (to make low volume playing easier) and offers the user the option to use the boost. The latter of these omissions on the 101B was so glaring and frustrating as to be almost unforgivable on a lesser amp – but fortunately the 101B has more than enough flexibility elsewhere to compensate.
Overall, this is a complex beast that CAN be operated with deceptive simplicity; an often misunderstood amplifier that CAN be dark, but doesn’t have to be. After more than two decades, it’s a genuine guitarists’ toolkit in a market full of channel switchers that promise many sounds, but in fact deliver only one or two that are truly world-class. The fact that Steve Lukather turned to a Bogner 101B for his amplification needs after three-and-a-half decades at the top of his game (and not forgetting, with twenty years’ worth of competing amp companies all vying for his attention) really says it all. As an expressive tool, this amplifier is still up there with the very best in the world. Its signature sound is quintessentially Bogner: complex, woody, harmonically chewy and with the ability to span many genres. As a “boutique amplifier” (whatever that means this week) it still makes several of the fashionable modern alternatives look overpriced, overhyped and under par.
As for that rabbit hole? I’ll take the red pill and the blue – and wash it all down with some boosted green for good measure.
Many thanks to Brent Pearcy for technical information and the Green channel settings. Visit http://bognerampforum.informe.com for more Bogner love. Thanks also to John Ou for information on the original Steve Vai 100A.