REVIEW: Peavey Windsor Studio

Small amps have been something of an un-secret secret weapon for years. I’m sure we’ve all heard the stories about Jimmy Page using small combos in the early days of Led Zeppelin. There’s just something about a small amp pushed hard that sounds great on recordings, and it’s with this in mind that Peavey designed the Windsor Studio.

This little Class A, 15-watt screamer arrives from the factory with two 12AX7 preamp tubes and one EL34 power-amp tube, but can also accommodate 6L6GC, 6550, 6CA7, KT88 and KT66 octal power tubes, as well as variations on those types. Controls include preamp volume, master volume, three-band EQ, footswitchable effects loop (with the in and out jacks located on the front panel – very studio-friendly) and a single 12” Peavey Blue Marvel loudspeaker. The footswitchable boost effectively acts as a second channel by increasing the level of the preamp, either overdriving the power amp for more distortion or for a simple volume boost for solos.

If that’s not enough control for ya, or the volume is too loud for recording with a baby in the next room or something, the Windsor Studio includes Peavey’s new Power Sponge output attenuator, which lowers the power output of the amplifier while preserving tone. Further boosting this amp’s stock as a recording guitarist’s Swiss army knife, there’s a transformer-balanced XLR direct output with microphone simulation, so you can plug directly into a mixing desk live or in the studio.

Although the ability to switch out different power tubes is a great feature, I was glad to see that this amp arrived EL34-loaded, as it’s my personal favourite. I just love that warm, compressed vibe from a cranked EL34. You can also get a rather decent amount of drive out of the preamp. It’s no grindcore amp, but there’s enough gain for most varieties of rock and a few metal styles. Combining your ideal preamp gain level with the punch and whomp of the overdriven power section (with the volume tamed to taste by the Power Sponge), you can attain a very responsive, warm lead tone with great sustain. The open back cabinet adds a nice midrange throw, and while the bass is a little lacking, this isn’t really an issue either in the studio or on stage because you’re likely to trim the low frequencies to allow room for the kickdrum and the bass guitar anyway. So you could say Peavey has already voiced this amp to sit nicely in the mix. This is worth considering and you may see it as a negative if you’ll mainly be playing unaccompanied by yourself at home though. There’s also a nice roundness to the clean tones, which is great for jazz. The amp inhabits that rare, mystery zone where the individual notes of chords maintain their definition, but the sound is still warm and full, instead of sharp and zingy. Personally I like the zing but that’s not for everyone.

The Windsor Studio is obviously designed as a studio tool (and it’s a good choice for those who want monster tube-driven tone at low levels around the house), but it has enough volume for certain live applications, and as long as you trust the PA system you could quite happily use the XLR out to feed the signal directly to the house in larger venues. It’s not the be-all and end-all of amps, and it’s not in the same league as Peavey’s higher-price items, but it its own place it’s a good alternative in the ‘small amp, easy to record’ sector. If you’re in the small amp market you might still want to check out the Orange Tiny Terror, Bogner Alchemist, Vox AC15 and Hughes & Kettner Statesman just to name a few.

CLICK HERE to buy the Peavey Windsor Studio 20W 1×12 Tube Combo Amp from Guitar Center for $399.99.

REVIEW: Morley Bad Horsie 2 Steve Vai Signature Wah

Legend has it there are few guitarists who are more demanding to design signature gear for than Steve Vai (see my interview with DiMarzio pickup designer Steve Blucher for more on this). You don’t rise to such technical and compositional levels of excellence without being extremely driven, and Vai’s demands on gear companies are the thing of legend. So when he turned to Morley to design a signature wah pedal, I’m sure a few white hairs sprung up on the heads of Morley engineers.

The first cool thing about the Bad Horsie’s design is that it features switchless activation. There’s no chunky switch at the top of the pedal’s travel to stamp down on to start wah-ing. You simply put your foot on the pedal, and the effect engages. Take your foot off, and the wah effect tails off over a period of 1.5 seconds. Or you can pop the bottom off the pedal and adjust a tiny internal trim pot for your preferred off time, from instantaneously all the way up to 3.5 seconds.

The next design twist is the pedal’s operation itself. Instead of using an assembly to rotate a potentiometer when the pedal is moved like other wahs, Morley pedals use an Electro-Optical design which uses an LED light array and a light-sensitive sensor to control the wah sweep. What this means is that instead of stepping on the pedal to rotate a pot, stepping on the pedal brings the LEDs closer to the sensor, and the nearer it gets, the higher the wah tone sweep gets. The benefits are twofold: extremely smooth linear wah sweep, and best of all no pots to wear out and become scratchy and noisy. Some higher end tremolo and compressor pedals use similar technology to regulate the effect dependent on internal settings or the strength of the input signal, but it’s a logical fit for expression pedal effects.

The original Bad Horsie wah pedal – named after the opening track from Vai’s 1995 “Alien Love Secrets” EP – was a pretty big success, but because it was customised for Vai’s particular needs and rig, players wanted a little more flexibility. So the Bad Horsie 2 takes the exact sound of the original, and adds a foot switchable second mode, Contour mode, which enables the user to adjust Q and wah level.

More practical but by no means less exciting features are a Clear-Tone buffer circuit, which maintains a pure guitar tone and signal level whether in wah or bypass mode, and an easy access battery compartment which is simple to operate and extremely durable. It’s also a very heavy, robust unit, and its spring loaded design, while preventing traditional “set in one place as a tone modifier” techniques, is well suited to aggressive “stomp the bejabbers out of the pedal” styles.

The Bad Horsie 2 is definitely not a vintage sounding pedal. Then again, could you imagine Vai going for a traditional sound? Instead there’s a round smoothness to the tone across the pedal’s range, but even so, the treble peaks way up in the stratosphere. The top quarter of the pedal’s sweep is especially good for pulling pinch harmonics out of guitars that usually put up a bit of a fight against such techniques, and it even made my Ibanez’s neck pickup squeal with Dimebag-style harmonics.
Vai’s original Bad Horsie mode is the best way to get a ready-to-go sound out of this bad boy, but fiddling around with the Contour and Level controls in the Contour mode reveals fresh layers of flexibility. With the Contour control down low, the sweep reminds me of the classic fat Jimi Hendrix wah tone, with darker treble and reduced range compared to the wild sweep of Bad Horsie mode, and yet a hi fi sheen that seems to take that classic funky “wow-wow” wah sound of the 60s, grab it by its scruffy neck and drag it into the future.

By way of reference, the original Bad Horsie mode seems to be replicatable by setting the Contour control to 10 and Level to 0. Cranking up the level while on this setting thickens the tone considerably, which you can use either as a gain boost or just to compensate for thinner sounding pickups.

If you’re familiar with the wah tones of Zakk Wylde and Nuno Bettencourt when they used Morley wah pedals in their golden years, or if of course you’ve listened to Vai in the last decade or so, you have a rough idea of the charm of Morley wah wah pedals. The sweep is bold and drastic, and the tones have a glassy sheen which leaves no doubt as to whether the effect is on or not, even under huge amounts of distortion. Vai’s own spin on this classic effect is as extroverted and extravagant as the man himself, and whether you want to put a bit more Vai in your sound, or you just want a flexible and in-your-face wah pedal, it’s worth saddling up this Bad Horsie for a test.