HUGHES & KETTNER HAVE BEEN getting players to dig into their programmable tube amps for years now, with artists such as Alex Lifeson and Allan Holdsworth gigging with Switchblade models and Annihilator’s Jeff Waters touring with the Coreblade reviewed here. The Coreblade represents the pinnacle of H & K’s programmable line and is packed with features. I tested it with a Larrivee RS-4, a Gibson Les Paul, a Fender Strat, and a Schecter Damien Elite 7-string.
We unboxed the Coreblade and were very impressed—if not a little intimidated— by its tough, mean appearance. It looks and feels very much like a tank, with bars to protect the tubes inside, 15 beefy knobs, two sturdy switches, a red Boost button, and six cool blue illuminated buttons (to show the status of the noise gate and effects loop and to store and up- or download presets). The back panel is just as full featured, sporting a bevy of jacks for speakers, footswitches, MIDI controllers, and effects loop, as well as a Sensitivity control for the programmable Noise Gate and a series of LEDs for the Tube Status Control (more on this bitchin’ feature later). Firing up the Coreblade revealed a sexy glow from the tubes that foreshadowed the hot tones that this amp is capable of.
Without further ado, I plugged in a Les Paul and auditioned Clean, the first of the four channels. It is as advertised, with lots of headroom and pristine ring with the Gain anywhere below 2 o’clock. The passive 3- band EQ was very effective at taking the sound from pop jangle to smoky jazz, with the Presence and Resonance controls offering further tone shaping. I like at least a little dirt on my clean sounds, and engaging the Boost provided just the right amount of hair for a big, sweet sound that filled the room with no need for reverb or other effects. Being greedy, however, I reached for the Reverb knob and dialed a little in, followed by a hint of Delay and Chorus. The process couldn’t be easier and the results were beautiful. I didn’t want to lose my killer tone so I pressed and held the Store button and bam! Preset stored.
Next I switched over to the Drive channel. This is where you’ll go for your bluesy grind and AC/DC-style power chords. I really dig this channel—very dynamic with a huge range of tones. Lower Gain settings can actually work great for clean tones and adding the Boost rocks them out. Higher Gain levels produce fat, saturated chords that still have detail and definition, and kicking the Boost in makes them sustain forever. I saved a couple of my favorites with varying levels of Gain and effects and moved to Ultra 1.
Although the Ultra 1 channel is capable of other styles, what it wants is metal. Fierce, in-your-face metal (or, for Metallica fans, metal up a slightly lower region of the body). Even at modest Gain settings, this tone is thick and saturated, with big lows and slicing highs. There’s plenty of pick attack, so fast riffs don’t get mushy. Any amp with this much gain is going to produce some hiss, so I engaged the Noise Gate and was amazed at how quiet it made the ’blade. Like “on standby” quiet. I turned the Master up and made the mistake of hitting a chord and the ensuing sound tore my head off. This gate is so effective it should come with a warning label. After collecting my thoughts, I got back to chugging. The Schecter 7-string sounded amazingly heavy through this channel, with a massive low end and vicious distortion. The Schecter’s EMG pickups were also a great match for Ultra 1—this channel was probably voiced with EMGs. With the Gain at high noon, I had a skull-crushing rhythm tone and all I had to do was kick in the boost for leads. Ultra 1 isn’t as flexible as the Drive channel, but who cares?
That takes us to Ultra 2, which has so much gain and distortion that it’s best suited for extreme metal. Even at whisper levels, the sustain is endless. One great non-metal tone I got on this channel was neck pickup on a Strat with the tone control rolled all the way off. This was flutey and sing-y, almost like an EBow.
In addition to all this flexibility, the Coreblade still has one unique feature up its sleeve: the Tube Status Control. The TSC gives you a visual readout of tube health, automatically sets optimum bias, removes bad tubes from the circuit so you can get through the gig, and allows you to swap 6L6s for EL34s or run a combination of the two. We tried it and it works like a charm. The sonic differences between the EL34s and 6L6s weren’t quite as pronounced as I would have thought, but this feature could be a lifesaver on the road.
To sum up, this is a really hip tone machine. While it might look like a fourchannel amp, it’s really more like a 128-channel amp (or more) thanks to its programmability. Even if you don’t play music that requires the mayhem that the Ultra channels are capable of, you could program out 25 different versions of Clean and Drive and get through any gig or session. Then there’s the effects, which sound gorgeous. The Coreblade gives you the tone sculpting options of a modeling amp but with all-tube tone. It’s a winner.
CONTACT Hughes & Kettner; hughes-and-kettner.com
PRICE $3,129 retail/$2,499 street
CHANNELS Four, up to 128 presets
CONTROLS Master Volume, Reverb Volume, Delay Level, Feedback, and Time; Mod FX Intensity and Type; Volume, Presence, Resonance, Treble, Mid, Bass, Gain. Switchable functions: Boost, noise gate, FX loop (on/serial), store, memory (stick/amp), channel selector (Clean, Drive, Ultra II, Ultra II).
TUBES Four EL34 power tubes (also handles 6L6GC power tubes), three Sovtek 12AX7 preamp tubes.
POWER 100 watts
EXTRAS Three independent effects processors for programmable reverb, modulation, and delay; 16Ω, 8Ω, and 4Ω speaker outs, MIDI-Board FSM-432 MKII footswitch, TSC Tube Status Control, frontpanel memory stick port.
WEIGHT 40.12 lbs
KUDOS Unreal flexibility. Huge range of tones. Unique Tube Status Control.
CONCERNS All this flexibility and power could be overwhelming for old-school players.