By Darrin Fox
Aside from the Beatles, Vox’s most noted old-school ambassador is Queen guitarist Brian May, who, onstage with a pyramid of AC30s towering behind him, formed one of rock’s most enduring images. But although May used his trusty AC30s extensively in the studio, he also had a secret weapon called the “Deacy” that allowed him to create some of the most amazing guitar orchestrations ever committed to tape.
To call the original Deacy amp funky is a huge understatement (see sidebar, page 94), but the pinpoint tones that emanated from its tiny speaker allowed May to stack track upon track of harmonized guitar parts. Though only one Deacy was ever made, Vox’s new Brian May Special VBM 1 amplifier ($150 street)—which was co-designed by the guitarist—aims to bestow the “Deacy sound” upon multitudes of players.
Now I’m Here
Because the Deacy epitomizes the term “one off,” Vox didn’t attempt to produce an exact replica of the amp. Instead, they designed the VBM 1 to be a “variation of the Deacy system”—and it is a system because May always used his homemade treble booster in front of the Deacy. So Vox included an approximation of May’s booster into the VBM 1’s circuit, along with a dedicated output that lets you run just the booster section into another amp. Vox also spiffed up the cosmetics, ditching the original Deacy’s rustic look to make the VBM 1 a veritable “mini me” of the Vox set. The white Tolex coupled with Vox’s classic, diamond-pattern grille cloth is ultra-cool, and the only construction flaw was some sloppiness with the cream-colored piping.
Plugging a variety of guitars into the VBM 1—including Fender Strats and Teles, a PRS McCarty, and a Gibson SG—I was immediately struck by how small and rather funky this amplifier sounds. All of the tones exude a decidedly pointed and cantankerous upper-midrange snarl, as well as a high-end brashness that is unlike any amp I’ve ever heard. The intense distortion—and there’s tons of it—is neither subtle nor willing to clean-up when you turn your guitar down. Complex chord voicings tend to become a bit garbled in the hurricane of transistor rage, and even lower-gain settings induce slight ghosting effects behind the notes. Turning the gain way down, however, lessened this phenomenon somewhat.
That said, there’s a tonal character inherent in the VBM 1 that is rather ingratiating. Perhaps it’s the way that notes ooze into effortless feedback, allowing you to play with a fluid, horn-like expressiveness. Or maybe it’s the way that simple power chords assume an air of aggressive snottiness. Whatever it is, it’s clear that the VBM 1 is designed to do a specific job, and that job is adding a sonic thumbprint to whatever you use it on.
To test the VBM 1’s value as a recording tool, I ran its speaker-simulated line output into a Korg D-1200 hard-disk recorder and proceeded to stack several tracks of harmony leads. The amp’s
focused mids allowed me to easily maneuver multiple layers without overwhelming the sonic spectrum of the tune or thinning out the wall of guitars with mushy overdrive. But the sounds really came alive when I miked the VBM 1 with a Shure SM57. By varying the mic placement between close, off-axis, and ambient positions, I was able to incorporate room tone into the mix and achieve a more May-esque sense of timbral complexity.
Some of the VBM 1’s most satisfying sounds, however, didn’t even come from the amp, but from its booster section. When using the Booster output to drive various tube amps, the VBM 1’s gain control acts as the booster’s output (the tone and volume controls are disabled), and I was able to push every amp into becoming a creamy, sustain machine. And—surprise, surprise—when I ran the VBM 1 into a Vox AC30, I could hear some of May’s tonal DNA coming through in the form of flute-like sustaining lead lines and a cutting midrange honk.
Queen for a Day
Much like a classic Supro or Fender Champ, the VBM 1 is a valuable studio tool with a left-of-center sonic character that can yield magical results. And with the VBM 1’s ability to act as a booster stompbox—not to mention its hip looks and friendly price point—it’s easily one of the coolest mini amps on the market.