Sunday, August 2, 2020

On the writing side of life, Fahrenheit Press has reprinted the second book in my Crime Fighting Bluesmen series. The Devil's Blues hit the market again and hopefully it'll find new readers that missed it the first time around. Mitty Andersen and Pete Bolden are back trying to corral the evil entities bent on bringing Christianity to its knees.

Back in May, I decided to buy a small amp chassis that would give me the tone I wanted at a low volume. I have a Kalamazoo and Lone Wolf Harp Train 10 that I have used at a couple of gigs we do and have to turn them down to the point that their tone drops out to a dull level. I've used my Lone Wolf Reverb, LW Delay and LW Harp Octave pedals to recover some of that. It not an optimal solution, but I've made it work with the LW Harp Train.

So, this leads me back to my previous post about David Barrett's website where he reviewed a lot of small amps. One of the small amps that impressed him (along with Gary Smith) was the Windy City Plus from Sonic Pipe Amplifiers. I listened to the review video/audio clips more than a few times and listened to his take on the merits of the amp. It all sounded exactly what I was looking for, but I was conflicted about buying another amp. And, I wasn't sure whether it would work in the way that I wanted.

I visited the Sonic Pipe website. The company has some amazing stuff going on which is outside the box. Check 'em out.  They listed the Windy City Plus with the 10" speaker and the Windy City with the 8" speaker as sold out, but....the chassis that sets within those amps was available and was what I had in mind. I figured that it would make a great Father's Day gift and since the wife agreed, I ordered it. I reckoned that I could knock out some kind of enclosure for it.

They admit up front that the amps begin life in China and it give them a platform for experimenting with the tone stack and capacitors and such. That seems to be pretty common with quite a few small amps on the market. My Lone Wolf Harp Train 10 is part and parcel Chinese.  I suppose that I could have ordered some such base amp from over there and swapped out components to my satisfaction, but it would have taken more brain power and labor than I was willing to spare.

The next day I received an e-mail from the owner, Tom Fleissner, stating that the pandemic situation had affected their supply chain and he wouldn't be able to fill my order and he refunded my credit card. I wasn't devastated by the news. It's not like I had to have another amp. BUT, then the wife said "what now?" for a Father's Day gift. Well....I didn't really need another microphone either, but my curiosity had been stirred up in regards to the new Hohner harp mic. I got the okay for that and placed an order with the Rockin' Ron, the best source for all things harmonica. Website stated that it was back ordered for couple of weeks and wouldn't make it by FD, but that was of little matter.

About a week later, Ron called and said the back order was likely closer to mid-July and wanted to know if I wanted to stick it out. I did. Then, the next day, Tom Fleissner e-mailed and said he had the material to build the chassis and did I still want one and that he would ship for free. So...I told him carry on. Just had to tell the wife that, "Oh, by the way..."

The chassis made it to my house. My son, who was visiting, and I unpacked it and installed the tubes, but it really didn't fire up properly. I e-mailed Tom and he said send it back and he'd check it out. I did. He did. I got it back in fine shape and went to work. While I waited for the return trip, I slapped together a crude enclosure for its new home out of materials that I had on hand. I had an old Sears 5watt amplifier that I worked over and never really had much going for it, other than it would send 110 volts of electricity through the body if something shorted out. I had stuck a Weber Sig 8 alnico speaker in it when I had hopes for it. I had already removed the chassis and it made a reasonable, light weight extension speaker cab, and it was perfect for the Windy City chassis.

I wasn't going to stick a picture on here since it is a rather crude thang right now, but I figured it would break up this long winded post somewhat with a visual.

So, here it is warts and all. The picture makes the speaker cab appear way larger than it is. The amp came with a 5881wxt and Ruby 6v6 gtstr for power tubes, a 6z4 rectifier tube (which is kind of a Chinese 6x4), and a 6sj7 preamp tube. Being able to swap from a 6l6 type tube to a 6v6 makes for a useable tonal option. The swap can add/subtract the amount of grit, grind or crunch one wants in a given situation. A bias switch to go between the two can also be switched wrong to provide a mismatch for additional tonal choices. The bright switch throws down some mo' mojo with which to experiment. And, experiment I did.

The amp is sorta like a Champ 5c1, which also used the 6sj7 preamp tube. That tube has a lot to do with classic tone of the amp. We're talking early 50's. So, if you're familiar with that Champ's tone, then you would be close...but the other little options make it more that a one trick pony. It's also comparable to the lower wattage Mascos, circuit wise.

I plugged in the 6v6 first and it spat out a classic harp tone. Nice, crunchy distortion which was far from being harsh. The bias switch mismatch added a bit more crunch, which was not necessary. I found the bright switch very useful when swapping to a mic that needed a bit more treble, like the Astatic shell with the Greg Heumann element that is bassier. The amp didn't see a mic that it didn't like. I do believe, though, that he imputs are set up to favor crystal/ceramic mics. The two examples I have just seemed to have a fuller tone to them. My Shure Bullet with a controlled reluctance element has been my go to mic for a long time because it sounds a bit better with my amps, but the JT30 crystal edges it out with the Windy City.

The 5881 gave the amp a little less distortion and a little more low end tone. The amp's not going to do clean, but this power tube does mellow the distortion somewhat if that's your cup of tea. The mismatch bias did bring more crunch, but not as much as the 6v6. I find all this very intriguing, especially when you get the amp out in a live situation. All rooms and stages are so variable when it comes to trying replicate the tone you want. I doubt that I would show up with a tube swap in mind, but flipping switches certainly can get more satisfaction going.

The Windy City amplifiers started life at Sonic Pipes with a Weber Sig 8" 8ohm speaker, but they also  offered it with an Eminence for a choice...or whatever the customer wanted. The Windy City Plus contains a 10" speaker choice. As I mentioned, the repurposed Sears amp cab has the Sig 8 and the speaker sounds perfect for this amp. The amp gives up the tone I'm looking for, so I'm not about to head off on a 'what if' speaker hunt. I did plug the chassis into my Harp Train 10 speaker (Weber Sig 10 Ceramic) and my Kalamazoo's Jensen 10" ceramic. Not a whole lot of tonal differences, just a touch louder...and as I said at the beginning of this post, I wasn't searching for louder, but an amp that achieved a decent low volume. The Windy City's does the do in that regards.

And I've spent a couple of taste test sessions comparing the Harp Train 10 and the Kalamazoo with the Windy City. First, I set the HT 10 up the way I have to when playing at a low volume gig. The tone is gutted at that volume. To compensate, I stick the aforementioned pedals in front of it and it does okay. I set up without pedals and sat Windy City an a comparable volume (used a sound meter to match them up). The HT10 just sounded dull and lifeless, but the WC had the tonal spark I was looking for at that volume. I started with the 6v6 tube and thought it would be the one that work the best, but found the 5881 a better choice, with the matched bias. Surprised me really.

Tonally, the Kalamazoo comes really close to the WC. At a more cranked volume, they sound very close, but I give the edge to the WC. Once the Zoo's volume is dropped do the low the volume I need, then the tone flattens. and drops out.  So, I had all three going back forth and sideways. Swapping mics, different harp keys, etc...The Windy City just can do low volume without the tone crapping out much better. I broke out my 68 Custom Princeton Reverb just to make sure I wasn't missing something, but knew where it like to be played best...but I had a blast blasting away, because I did crank them all up. At some point the Windy City doesn't get louder, just distorts more. That's fine with me, because that will not be its job.

Oh, and the Hohner mic? Ron e-mail me to say that it looked like the end of August before Hohner honored his orders. So, I bowed out at that news. Someday, I might grab it check it out. But for now, I've got to blow some more Windy City--'Nuff for Now.