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Review: Hughes & Kettner GrandMeister 36

April 10, 2014
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I never thought I’d use the terms “supremely cute” and “rocks like an unholy banshee” to describe the same amp, but then again, I’d never met this little thing before. The first impression upon slipping Hughes & Kettner’s new offering from its handy padded gigbag is that it’s rather diminutive for anything dubbed “Meister,” much less a Grand one. But this follow-on from the popular TubeMeister packs more than enough features to justify its title, and is one of the most comprehensive total-rig-systems to have come down the pike in quite some time. We might consider it, in fact, a comprehensive tube-based answer to the flexibility of the modern digital modeling amp. In order to come anywhere close to dissecting this thing in the space allowed here, let’s, for now, simply call the GrandMeister 36 a four-channel tube amp with six onboard digital effects and fully configurable MIDI programming and switching, and move along smartly to what will matter most to the majority of players: how well it functions, and how it sounds.

Fortunately, for all that the GrandMeister 36 can do—see the Controls and Extras sections of the spec box for a hint—its control functions, switching, and programming are a breeze. For example, while the FSM432 MkIII footcontroller (a worthy investment to make the most of the GM36) comes loaded with 128 presets in 32 banks of four channels each, modifying those to preference is as simple as can be. Tweak parameters, hit Store button, stomp footswitch to assign a bank and channel, and you’re done. Alternatively, or in addition to this, download the GrandMeister 36 iPad app, and use your tablet to expand its features exponentially with remote control, preset storage and sharing, and more.

All front-panel controls function as standard 300-degree rotary knobs, but there is no fixed “setting” on any as such: they remember the preset settings according to the channel selected. In this way, the GrandMeister 36 is a genuine four-channel amp with independent Clean, Crunch, Lead, and Ultra channels, although they all use the same controls without actually “sharing” them. Several of these knobs also double for onboard effects selection and parameters (delay, chorus, tremolo, flanger, phaser, and the always-available reverb), and these too can be assigned to your preset adjustments as desired. Nifty stuff.

In addition to the ease in setting up your sounds and getting them back, the GrandMeister 36’s connectivity and versatility are impressive. Use the FX loop and built-in Red Box DI (which has two cab-emulation settings) as necessary, set output power between 36 and 1 watts (or mute for silent DI recording), dial in the Noise Gate as required, and even troubleshoot tube function and bias, all from the amp’s back panel. Marvelous!

The amp’s three 12AX7s and four EL84 output tubes are all generic Chinese types, accessed by removing the two plastic end panels and the carrying handles, and slipping off the metal section that protects the top and rear. The whole piece is cleverly designed, but there isn’t a lot of space within the enclosure, and that metal gets hot when the amp has been on for a while. The guts of the thing are jam packed with circuitry on several PC boards; and, unlike traditional topology of most tube amps, where your signal runs straight from the jack to the grid (input) of the first preamp tube via a single resistor, the GM36 sends it through considerable solid-state stages before the tubes join the game. That said, ours is not to reason why, but simply to judge the tone and performance.

I tested the GrandMeister 36 with a Les Paul and a Stratocaster, and while I checked the FX loop and DI for function (all good), I mostly stuck with the onboard sounds in the amp itself—of which there are plenty—through H&K’s closed-back TM212 cab loaded with two 12" Celestion Vintage 30s. Fire it up, and the transparent lightup front panel floats a spooky, blue holograph-like “Hughes & Kettner” at you. While there’s a whole lot to play with here in the sonic sense, the GrandMeister 36 strikes me first as a fiery thrash machine in a handy little box. That’s where I jumped in, and what I came back to time and again, the heavy crunch, lead, and extreme overdrive tones are what I found myself having the most fun with at the end of the day. I was constantly impressed with the girth and solidity of the amp’s low end, as well as its midrange punch, even at lower output settings—easily achieved with its fluid, effective Master control, in addition to the Power Soak settings. Twisting the Gain, EQ, Resonance, and Presence rendered everything from vintage plexi-like crunch, to singing ’80s hair lead, to raging California übermayhem, all just scratching the surface of this amp’s capabilities. Fine-tune these voices for every nuance your set requires, assign them to any of 128 presets (hah, yeah), and there’s a world of variation here.

The core tonality of the amp is very good overall, too; perhaps not in the ultra-lush, hyper-dimensional boutique territory, but really damn good. And swapping out the stock tubes for more virtuous bottles is likely to nudge that impression upward, too (just popping an NOS RCA 12AX7 in V1 sweetened it noticeably).

On splashdown into clean territory I was initially less impressed, but the GM36 likes to have its master pushed to give some harmonic richness to the sparklier settings. Anything from Crunch to Ultra, however, nicely replicates stack-like grunt, even at bedroom levels. Get each voice into its sweet spot, though, and the GrandMeister 36 is surprisingly gig-to-session worthy on all settings, and unfeasibly convenient to use, too. Add in the decent sounding built-in effects, and even a cynical, died-in-the-cathode analog head like myself finds this robustly appointed little tube head an extremely useful music-making machine. All said, the Grand Meister 36 justly earns an Editors’ Pick Award.

 
 

MODEL

GrandMeister 36

PRICE GrandMeister 36 Head $1,199 street; FSM432 MkIII Footcontroller $199 street

Specifications

CHANNELS 4

CONTROLS Gain, Volume, Bass, Mid, Treble, Reverb (several double as delay and modulation effects controls), Resonance, Presence, Master. Pushbutton switches for Boost, preset programming, noise gate, effects loop, and effects access.
 
POWER 36 watts, with “power soak” settings for 18, 5, and 1 watt.

TUBES Three 12AX7 preamp tubes, four EL84 output tubes

EXTRAS 128 user presets. Built in “digital spring” reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, phaser, and tremolo. MIDI In and Out/ Thru. Effects loop. Line out. Noise gate with Hard/Soft knob, XLR Red Box out (DI) with speaker cab emulation type button. Tube Safety Control indicators. Power soak with power-amp mute. Single 8–16Ω speaker out.

SPEAKERS Tested with H&K closedback TM212 cabinet with two 12" Celestion Vintage 30 speakers; $599 street.

WEIGHT Head 17 lbs; cabinet 42 lbs BUILT China

KUDOS Astounding versatility. Impressive design. Great tones on the majority of settings, particularly the higher-gain channels.

CONCERNS Better stock tubes could improve its overall tone.
 

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