Mojave AmpWorks SideWinder

July 31, 2008

By designing such a world-beater in the Vox AC30, he unwittingly opened the floodgates to a riptide of boutique and mass-manufactured emulations of the iconic two generations later. All of these copycats follow the hallowed EL84-based, class-A road in their search for sonic Valhalla, and almost all feature the piece de resistance of the most desirable AC30s—the Top Boost tone circuit that gave extra shimmer and chime to the whole shebang.

As great as a good Top Boost AC30—or a fine reproduction—can sound, however, I have always been partial to the straight-up simplicity and slightly rounder, arguably fatter tone of the non-Top Boost models (or the Normal channels on the TB-equipped AC30s). There’s a place for that glassy, crystalline, Top Boost response, for sure, but when you just want to grind, crank up that Normal Volume and have at it. On evidence of the SideWinder, I get the feeling Mojave Ampworks feels the same. The amp is in a minority in its field in that it skirts closer to the AC30’s humble Normal channel, but Mojave gives it a spin with some serious preamp tweakery.

The SideWinder’s output stage boasts a 30-watt power stage consisting of four cathode-biased EL84s with no negative feedback, and rectification from a GZ34 tube. Its preamp, however, is a very different linked-dual-channel affair, which routes your choice of High and Low Sensitivity inputs to two parallel gain stages, one voiced for Bass and the other for Treble, each with its own Volume control. A 12AX7 preamp tube lurks behind each control, along with Mojave’s low-noise/high-sensitivity “current tracking” preamp circuit, and these voices can be blended in the desired proportions to suit your sonic needs. Beyond this, there’s just a shared treble-bleed Tone control, a two-way Mid Cut/Mid Emphasis switch to further filter your grind, and Mojave’s proprietary Power Dampening control (more on this later).

As straightforward as it all appears from the outside (although simplicity scores big in my book), you need to pull the SideWinder’s chassis to really appreciate the effort that Mojave has put in. It’s a smorgasbord of hand-wired ampestry: Immaculate wire runs with stranded, Teflon-insulated, silver-plated copper wire; a fluid and extremely neat turret board populated with high-tolerance polypropylene signal caps and high-grade metal film capacitors; Mercury Magnetics transformers; and military grade switches, potentiometers, and tube sockets all strut their stuff. Less easy to discern, but a clever little trick nonetheless, is Mojave’s simple but effective Power Dampening circuit, which has been added to all of their amps for the past couple of years. Governed by the aforementioned front-panel control, this is neither a master volume nor a cousin of the more complicated Power Scaling circuit devised by Kevin O’Connor of London Power. Rather, it’s a network that reins in levels at the front end of the output stage, allowing you to achieve fully driven tones at lower volumes—a real boon in an age where small amps, and sensible decibel levels, tend to rule the stage and studio.

I tested the SideWinder with an original 1957 Fender Esquire and an American Reissue ’57 Stratocaster, a Gibson Memphis ES-335 Dot, and a pair of Grosh ElectraJets, and the amp gave bloom, breath, and dimension to the individual voice of each guitar. Up to around ten o’clock on the paired Volumes, the clean tones were full, rich, and musical. Pushed into crunch and beyond, the drive tones were especially pleasing, with impressive girth and enjoyable dynamics. There were plenty of sweetly aggressive mids from the Celestion Blues, which also presented a firmer low-end response than you often expect from such speakers. If I hadn’t peeked in the back of the amp before plugging it in, I’d have considered this more a shot at the vintage Marshall tone, with bags of round, juicy, midrange grind when you crank it up. But the Side-Winder also displays the bountiful harmonic chime you’d expect from EL84s nominally biased to class A, just without the occasional treble spike of so many Top Boost-styled variations on the form. The flipside is that some players might miss that overcooked, crystalline harmonic shimmer, but the SideWinder certainly hits the target Mojave has aimed at—mighty and muscular tone. Mojave’s Power Dampening is a very effective feature, too. It isn’t entirely unobtrusive tonally—you need to adjust the Volume and Tone controls a little to retain parity in your voice and drive levels as you wind down the power—but it’s an extremely useful addition to an already sterling amplifier.

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