Although he spent much of his career as a systems integrator of software and hardware solutions for manufacturers, Don Hills has been working with electronics since he was a kid in high school in the early ’70s. Several years ago he decided to make this his full-time gig, founding Soul Tramp amps in Gray, Maine, where he now crafts hand-built tube machines on the idyllic shores of Little Sebago Lake, just northwest of Portland. Long a fan of Fender’s classic blackface amps of the ’60s, those circuits lie at the foundations of many of his current models, although he turns to tweed and British templates for others—while all of the above take the final product to places far beyond what any of those roots imply. Such is the 50-watt Wraith on review here, which marries one tweed Bassman-inspired clean channel with Hills’s scorching lead channel, dubbed the Soul channel, plus a ton of functionality to create a versatile and powerful amp that’s quite a bit different from anything else out there.
The full control complement is found in this review’s spec box, but it’s worth noting that these knobs work a little differently than the traditional two-channel dichotomy. The first Volume control, the three tone knobs plus Slop control (which shifts the frequency range of the entire tone stack), Master Volume and Presence are all active in clean mode. Stomp on the Soul button, though, and the first gain stage shifts to the Soul knob and, although the lead channels still uses the same EQ stage, the Drive knob also becomes active as a post-tone-stage master of sorts, to dial in gain levels before the final post-phase-inverter master. Step on the OD footswitch and a like-named knob on the amp’s back panel slathers on another stage of cascading gain, while the footswitch’s third button—Grind—adds a preset bump to subtly increase the lead channel’s edge and rawness. There’s also tube-driven spring reverb with back-panel Depth control and bypass switch, and an extremely versatile buffered effects loop available as serial or parallel with both Level and Mix control, or totally bypassable.
Hills builds every Soul Tramp himself by hand, using high-quality components such as the Mallory and SBE signal caps, Sprague and TAD filter caps, and Mercury Magnetics transformers on evidence here, all within a custom-built, heavy-duty aluminum chassis. He even gives the first two preamp tubes DC heater filaments for extremely low-noise performance. The cab, grille, and control panel are all elegantly styled and professionally rendered, and the Wraith comes with one of the finest covers I’ve seen as standard issue, custom made from high-grade auto-interior vinyl with marine-grade piping.
I tested the Wraith with a Stratocaster and a Les Paul, into a Port City 2x12 cab with Celestion G12-65 speakers and a StoneAge 1x12 with an Avatar Fane M65. Note that it takes some experimenting to find your own sweet spots amid the bevy of very interactive controls, on the Soul channel in particular, but the Wraith rewards any exploration with a diverse palette of sounds. The Clean channel is warm and round, an excellent voice for jazz that is goosed toward vintage rock and roll with a Tube Screamer injected. For any real country twang or shimmery pop jangle it likes to have the Treble and Presence controls pretty far advanced, at which point—since they share the EQ stage—the Soul channel is a hair brittle when you bring it in, but it’s easy enough to tweak the tone controls toward an acceptable compromise. I had the most fun on the Soul channel with the OD engaged, but also enjoyed the subtle raw lift that Grind added to the equation. It was easy to coax sizzling lead tones from the Les Paul that were still wiry and articulate, while the Strat at these settings was snarky, unhinged, and eviscerating in an extremely enjoyable way. Hills’s reverb circuit is delectable, too, with a lush shimmer when you want it, but returns more gain to the dry amp when bypassed.
All in all, the Wraith is a cool amp that is well built and able to deliver a worthy palette of alternative rock voices.
PRICE $2,335 retail
CONTROLS Volume, Soul, Slope, Treble, Middle, Bass, Drive, Master, Presence. Switches for Hi/Lo input, Bright, Woof. Back panel: OD Level, Reverb Depth, and Reverb Bypass switch
POWER 50 watts
TUBES Five 12AX7s, two 12AT7s, two 6L6GCs
EXTRAS Tube-buffered FX loop with On/Off switch, Serial/Parallel switch, Level and Mix controls, Dual speaker outs with 4/8/16Ω switch, 3-button footswitch for channel, OD, and Grind
WEIGHT 42 lbs
KUDOS An extremely well-built amp at a reasonable price. An original take on some very playable “pushed-Fender-style” lead tones.
CONCERNS Shared EQ might mean compromises between clean and lead voicings for some players.