The phrase “Boutique amplifier” was virtually nonexistent when Mark Sampson and Rick Perrotta founded Matchless back in 1989, but the results of that collaboration established a line of amplifiers that has veritably defined the category ever since. The long-standing flagship of the brand is encompassed by a handful of models that all use the 30-watt “C-30” chassis, found in the big DC-30 2x12 combo, TC-30 2x10 combo, SC-30 1x12 combo (pictured here), and the HC-30 head. Living up to and even exceeding the company’s intentions, the amps of the C-30 platform exhibit highly professional designs that are made to shine on the concert stage and to cut through a band mix, exuding monster tone and shimmering, blooming harmonic bliss in the process. Players who have had the opportunity to gig with one rarely forget the experience.
In the original pairing of Sampson and Perrotta, the latter was largely the business manager, while the former took on chief design duties. And the first of those duties was to build a new and more roadworthy rendition of a British classic.
“Rick always wanted to build an AC30 that wouldn’t break,” Sampson told me in 2005, “and after being out on the road I could see there was definitely a need for that. The original concept behind Matchless was basically to build a roadworthy amp that sounded good, but ‘roadworthy’ was the objective, initially.” While Matchless has tapped into other inspirations through the years, and has generally built amps that are very original, too, that magical EL84-driven, Vox-inspired, so-called “Class-A” thing was central to the sound from the start. “Sonically,” Sampson adds, “I like the thing that EL84s do: the compression, that kind of ‘scranggg…’ sound it does. That’s the only tube complement and setup that’ll do that.”
Given that premise, the path to “building a better AC30” involved making everything the best it could be, both in components and construction techniques. Sampson and Perrotta tested dozens of transformers and other crucial parts in the process, selecting for optimal tone and performance, and wired up the amps using the laborious point-to-point technique. A term often misused, point-to-point involves connecting components in the circuit directly to each other via other components—the output pin of a preamp tube socket is connected to a volume potentiometer via a coupling capacitor, for example—without the use of any full circuit board whatsoever. Given the size and complexity of the C-30 circuit, some terminal strips are used here and there for support, but otherwise it’s very much a what-you-see-is-what you-get style of building.
Other keys to the C-30 sound include its two channels: a chimey 12AX7 and a Vox-like “top boost” EQ stage on Ch1, and a hotter, beefier EF86 pentode preamp tube on Ch2 (like the very earliest AC30s, as well as original AC15s up through the mid ’60s) coupled to a 6-position Tone switch rather than any conventional tone controls. The output stage has four cathode-biased EL84s with no negative feedback—again, like the hallowed AC30. The power supply, on the other hand, offers something a little different: In addition to extensive filtering to keep the low end tight and punchy, it provides the player the option of using a single GZ34 rectifier tube for a fast, articulate response, or two 5V4 tubes for a somewhat softer, saggier playing feel.
Add it all up, and the C-30 amps offer a bold, clear performance that really comes into its own amid a band on a big stage, with a sweet and easy segue into blooming harmonic overtones and juicy, searing distortion when cranked up. Although Sampson and Perrotta departed Matchless in 1999, the company continues to build the SC-30, DC-30, and HC-30 to the original formulae under the watchful eye of current owner Phil Jamison, and continues to be the choice of countless touring professionals.
> One channel with EF86 pentode preamp
> One channel with 12AX7 “top boost” preamp
> True point-to-point hand wiring
> Four EL84 output tubes in cathode-bias for 30 watts
> Option of one GZ34 or two 5V4 rectifier tubes