“Someone should make an amp like this with an onboard radiant heater, too,” pined Sheehan and tour mate Stu Hamm in the colder cities. (They were apparently serious, but could have been merely delirious from early-stage hypothermia.) While a heating filament would of course tear through batteries, feature sets on mini-amps are nonetheless in a continual state of expansion and evolution. Finding proof of this is as easy as checking out the Micro Spider, Line 6’s multitalented entry into to the battery amp arena, and Roland’s newest Cube, the Micro Cube RX. While these new Chihuahua- sized rigs share many cool traits (multiple amp models, simultaneous modulation and time-based effects processing, CD/mp3-in jacks) and at least one not-so-cool trait (a large, clumsy wallwart power supply for AC operation), they are actually quite different, as their differing price points imply, and as you’ll quickly discover when we plug into each.
LINE 6 MICRO SPIDER
At a recent series of rehearsals in the living room of a singer I gig with, this little Spider proved quite handy, because like the bigger arachnids in the same line (everything from the Spider III 15 to the Spider Valve 212), it stores at least four channels’ worth of tone and effects settings, allowing guitarists to hop between their favorite Clean, Crunch, Metal, and Insane tones while controlling the overall level with the Master knob. (The amp also stores Acoustic mode settings.) Balanced and punchy, the Crunch and Metal models are particularly inspiring, and prove very useful any time you need articulate drive with well-defined midrange (the crucial ingredient in a cutting lead tone).
Even by practice amp standards, the Micro Spider is darn small—not a “belt clip” amp, but not too much bigger— making it a convenient campfire, beach, or subway station rig. Buskers will appreciate being able to run both a guitar and a microphone through it simultaneously. The amp is louder than its diminutive size might imply, too. Those six watts go far in smaller spaces where the sound can really ricochet off the walls.
Construction-wise, I like the removable back panel. This not only grants battery access, it also opens up an unofficial storage compartment for the amp’s power supply or other small stashables you might carry around, though you’ll need to be careful not to turn the amp upside down if anything’s in there, because its circuit boards are exposed on the ceiling. If you get one of the first-run Micro Spiders, like the one we tested, I’d also keep the amp upright when it’s running on batteries, if only because a good jolt could conceivably knock those C cells loose from the lidless tray in which they sit. (The newer version comes with a secure battery tray.) Also, in the week I testdrove this amp, a couple of its cute little silver knobs kept falling off the front panel, so I’d advocate extra care when navigating doorjambs or crowded buses with it. Luckily, the amp is just petite enough to fit in a small backpack or duffle bag when you want to insulate it somewhat from this rough world in which we live.
A great thing about this young Spider is its effects—though, for the record, a couple of really hot preamp settings seemed to max out the reverb circuit— not clipping it, per se, but hitting it hard enough to create an echo-y racquetballagainst- the-front-wall kind of “pop.” Line 6 shows their hipness by including both tap tempo control and their trademark Sweep Echo, which you can team up to generate trippy, swirling echoes that are as psychedelic as they are locked in the groove. Add some Phaser or Tremolo, and you’re projecting tapestries of sound that are surprisingly tall to be emanating from such a short rig. “Spiders are our friends,” goes the old adage. No one has done more than Line 6 to convince guitarists this saying is true.
Dashboard views of the Micro Spider (top) and Micro Cube RX
ROLAND MICRO CUBE RX
Picture, if you will, a group of Roland engineers from decades gone by, gathered around a chalkboard, designing the first Cube amplifier. As imaginative as this team obviously was, it’s doubtful that in their wilder dreams they could have anticipated the robust feature set onboard Roland’s latest Cube offering. (Thank you zeroes and ones!) Even the Micro Cube launched just a few years ago had a wide dashboard of features, including modulation and time-based effects, amp modeling, an auxiliary input, and a virtual tuning fork. Here in 2008, the Micro Cube RX ups the ante in striking ways.
First of all, though it retains the same general countenance—a square face, a tough metal grille, Roland’s signature knobs—the RX is just plain bigger and more massive than the original Micro Cube. It weighs only 14 lbs, but you still wouldn’t want to get caught between this thing and the ground. (A strong argument could be made that this amp is ready to graduate from its hand strap to a shoulder strap.) Four speaker magnets instead of one may play a role in this extra mass, but they’re absolutely worth their weight in tone, because they allow for the RX’s best new feature: stereo chorus and reverb. The closer you sit to this rig, the more vivid the stereo image created by these two effects becomes.
While the chorusing isn’t quite as dimensional as the JC120 chorus that presumably inspired it (perhaps because the centers of the of RX’s speaker cones are so much closer together than those on a 2x12 JC) it’s quite nice, and the reverb is euphorically stereophonic, especially through headphones. If only Roland had given this Cube a stereo ping-pong delay effect to match—it’d be like The-Edge-in-a-Box. (Oops—there I go wishing for more features. Guilty as charged!) The stereo power amp is useful in another way though: It plays tracks from your iPod or CD player in—you guessed it—stereo. This is great, because unless you’re bumping some early mono Beatles mixes, it’s always more fun to jam along to your favorite tracks mixed as the artist intended.
Other new RX features include a new amp model (Metal Stack) and a guitar tuner that operates in either chromatic or string-bystring mode. (The previous Cube offered only a reference tuning pitch for the fifth string, which I actually thought was hip in a learnto- tune-yer-damn-instrument-yerself kind of way.) The big news, though, is the addition of a helpful tempo-variable Rhythm Guide featuring 33 drum loops. While the beats range in vibe from cool to campy, my only complaint is a tiny one: All three metronome settings have accented pitches to effect either 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4 meters, making it annoying to practice nearly any other time signature. The inclusion of a simple quarter-note click— the practice tool of music students since time immemorial—could have solved this problem.
Bells and whistles aside, though, this Cube’s main appeal is balanced tones and tough construction—and the fact that while we all know that digital modeling and stereo effects go together better than hot cakes and maple syrup, Roland stepped things up and delivered that sweet combination in a micro amp.