Swart Atomic Space Tone

From every angle, the Atomic Space Tone evokes those cool Valco-made amps of the late 1940s and early ’50s. Topped off by the pre-space-age “rocket boy” graphics, it’s a pretty irresistible package for anyone with a taste for the formative delights of the early tube age. This all-tube 1x12 combo puts out 15 watts from a pair of 6V6 output tubes in cathode bias. It has dual Hi and Low inputs for its lone channel, tube-driven tremolo and spring reverb, and a finger-jointed, solid pine cabinet that measures just 172" x 152" x 9". The rear-mounted inputs and controls may remind you what a breakthrough it was when Leo Fender moved his control panel to the front of the amp with the 1950 Vibrasonic, but it’s an acceptable compromise for the style-conscious, retro-leaning guitarist.

While visually reminiscent of some of the small Oahu amps manufactured by Valco, the preamp circuit hints at a tweed Fender Deluxe married to blackface-style effects, with plenty of original twists. Inside the petite, enameled-steel chassis is a single sturdy, handwired turret board populated with Mallory and Xicon signal caps and carbon-comp resistors. Power and output transformers are by HeyBoer. Displaying extremely tidy, efficient workmanship, the Atomic Space Tone makes a great case study in squeezing a lot into a small package. As tight as it is, however, all the components are easy to access, so repairs—if and when necessary—shouldn’t be difficult to accomplish. The single 12" speaker is mounted in a ported lower section of the cab, and the tube reverb runs through a short-spring pan mounted in the bottom of the cabinet.

I tested the Atomic Space Tone with a varied assortment of guitars, including a Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, a PRS Singlecut Trem, and a Gretsch Duo Jet. Up to just short of 10 o’clock on the Volume control single-coils remain quite clean with decent headroom and just a smattering of harmonic fur to fatten them up. Rolling down the guitar’s volume controls adds sparkle and reduces bite. This is great twang territory for Strats and Teles, and the little combo lends itself well to slightly gritty country or roots rock. Crank the amp’s lone Volume knob past noon and the Atomic Space Tone oozes a classic blend of cathode-biased 6V6 sweetness and grind, providing great tones for blues excursions or early rock ’n’ roll lead work. From here on up, volume levels don’t increase considerably, but the amp piles on more compression and the dynamics become extremely tactile. It doesn’t verge on freak-out quite the way an old (or repro) tweed Deluxe tends to, but gets pretty hairy nonetheless. Humbuckers accelerate the whole package toward breakup, but the Atomic Space Tone handles a fatter input pretty well, and plugging into the Low input can help to tighten up the response if desired. There’s enough volume here for bar and small club gigs if your drummer isn’t too heavy a hitter, and of course miked through a good P.A., the sky is the limit.

While the Atomic Space Tone’s rugged, raw sounds offer more definition and precision than most pre-1963 15-watt amps can muster, volume settings of around 11 o’clock did produce a bit of boxiness in the upper mids with some guitars. Things smoothed out when I patched the amp into a couple of different speaker cabinets (one with a Celestion Greenback, another with an Alnico Blue/G12H pair), and, hopefully, some playing time will help to loosen up this Mojotone speaker.

The tremolo depth goes from a mere hint of a wobble to nearly a full on-off pulse, and the Speed control offers the extremes of slow and fast that most players will likely require. The reverb has plenty of depth but not a ton of richness—think of it as a long but narrow tunnel—but it works great for anything from adding a touch of dimension to pouring on the surf splash.

An extremely portable package for rehearsals, small club gigs and recording, the Atomic Space Tone sports a gritty, 6V6-fired voice to match its stylishly retro looks. Dean Wareham of Luna and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco (who has been seen pairing one with a Vox AC30 live and in the studio) have helped solidify the Atomic Space Tone’s credibility in alternative circles, and this diminutive sweetheart seems poised to win over a lot of new fans.