By Jude Gold
If you’ve ever gigged in a city like San Francisco, you’ll know what I’m talking about. You fight for a parking place high up on a steep hill, load your back with enough gear to make a pack mule groan, and then carefully wheel your prized Fender combo down to the club below, cringing with each tube-rattling crack in the sidewalk. The most recent time I made this downhill pilgrimage, however, I decided to lessen my load—as well as any tube-related worries—by leaving both my pedalboard and my Deluxe Reverb at home. In their place, I brought out Fender’s new Stage 100 DSP ($699 retail/$499 street).
The Stage’s exterior—with its “blackface” control panel, numbered black knobs, and silver grille cloth—very much evokes a classic Fender tube amp. Sound-wise, however, this solid-state marauder defies its traditional looks by producing a truly modern range of tones and offering a host of digital effects. Whether I was playing a Jeff Beck Strat with Lace Sensor pickups or a Gibson X-plorer Pro with hot ceramic magnets, I was always able to get a commanding tone with the Stage—although it particularly excels in smaller ensembles where the guitar is a primary focus. When playing in a large group that featured a keyboardist and a horn section, I was still able to get a satisfying tone, but I had to fight a bit harder for my slice of the sonic pie.
The Stage delivers the warm, iconic clean tone that decades of guitarists have come to associate with the chrome Fender logo. The sound isn’t quite as full as that of Fender’s better tube amps, but it’s very musical. Playing rock, R&, funk, and blues tunes on a Bigsby-equipped Hamer Monaco, I was able to cut through the bashing drums and rumbling bass with plenty of sparkle, chime, and headroom. The best part—which is directly attributable to Fender’s new Dyna-Touch dynamic response circuitry— is that the more you tax the Stage’s power amp, the more it responds with natural sounding compression. (Although at 100 watts, it stubbornly refuses to break up, and provides only hints of power amp grind.)
Press the Channel Select switch, and the Stage puts everything from subtle overdrive to frothing distortion at your fingertips. Invoking fluty blues tones and hard-driving lead screams is a breeze. Hit the More Drive switch and full saturation greets your ears, making it easy to attain heavy rock tones and soulful sustain. And when I let a buddy sit in and play an extended version of Hendrix’s “Who Knows,” the amp passed another test with flying colors: Out in the audience it sounded warm, fuzzy, and biting. My only disappointment was the amp’s Mid Contour feature—it revoices the Drive channel’s signal as a fully scooped, nu-metal tone, and the resulting sound is overly tinny.
Adding considerably to the Stage’s feature set is a DSP section that lets you soak your riffs in any of 16 different reverbs, as well as dress up your tone with chorus, delay, flange, phaser, tremolo, vibratone, and others. Signal-processing levels and one parameter per effect are dialed in with the Reverb Level, Effects Level, and Time/Rate knobs. Unfortunately, the different patches are not labeled around the Reverb Type and Effects Select dials, so to be nimble at selecting specific effects, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with which click on the incremental knobs equals which patch. For example, if you want to switch to the Ducking delay, it’ll be handy to know that it resides exactly at the fifth click clockwise in the Delay section of the Effects Select knob.
The Stage comes with a stomp-friendly four-button controller that lets you switch between the Clean and Drive channels, as well as turn on or off the reverb and effects. Big, square LEDs announce your settings very clearly. An added bonus is the More Drive button, which kicks the lead channel into high-gain mode—arguably making the Stage a three-channel amp.
It should be noted that the first two review amps we received had the same two glitches: miswired footswitches and Delay settings that clipped audibly when the amp was played at high volumes. Fender states these problems have been rectified, and that they were limited to a few units in the first production run.
All-in-all, the effects-loaded Stage 100 DSP can be a lifesaver for the working musician who currently hauls a ton of gear to each and every gig. It can cover myriad tones and styles with guts and grace, and if being a jack-of-all-trades can be considered a trade in itself, then the Stage is undeniably a grand master. Add one to your arsenal, and you may even be surprised by how often your favorite tube rig stays at home. It’s that good.