By Jack Devine
I remember the first time I heard a Sommatone amp. It was at a TGP gathering, the 2004 New York “Tone Fest”. I can recall sitting in the blast room, staring up at all the amps that had been played, and the ones yet to come with lust and anticipation. When out of the crowd, comes this guy who says he built this amp, yadda yadda. Immediately I discounted the whole shebang. I mean, we had just heard a vintage tweed Deluxe, and there was a room full of other classics and future classics from the boutique world to listen to. So, up comes this dude with a fiesta red parts strat and a homebrew amp? No way, right? Then I heard the thing…
Immediately, I was knocked out of my cynical stupor. I started to listen. The sound was really good. The one thing I noticed was that there was only a 1x12 up on the stage, yet the thing was really projecting nicely. The overdrive had it’s own thing going on, big and fat with single coils and lots of low end definition. The clean tones were nice and punchy without any harshness. Compact, versatile, good tones, reverb, boost, etc really cool, what’s not to like?
That was five years ago. That amp was the Sommatone Roaring 20. Now Jimmy Somma (TGP screen name Jimmy Somma) is a well known amp builder and has 3 models available: The Slick 18, The Roaring 20 (and 40) and Jimmy’s new high gain offering, The Outlaw.
In these next two columns I’ll be putting the Roaring 40 ($2750), the big brother of the amp I heard that day so long ago and the new horse in the Sommatone stable, the Outlaw ($2200) through their paces.
The Roaring 40 is based around a trio (2 more if you get reverb) of 12 AX7 pre-amp tubes and a quartet of el 84 output tubes. All the components are mounted directly to the tube sockets, jacks and pots. This keeps the signal path nice and short, which tends to maintain touch sensitivity and increase amp longevity. Jimmy, like many other top shelf builders chooses to use a heavy gauge welded aluminum chassis for low RF interference as well as its non-magnetic nature in his amps. The transformers, courtesy of Mercury Magnetics, are custom wound. Suffice to say, there’s no corners being cut in terms of construction or parts here. After having talked with Jimmy, seen his work and his workshop, I got the distinct impression he has a good type of OCD about his amps and audio in general. The R40 is very tidy and clean in its layout, with true point to point wiring through and through. This old school, military spec approach to amp construction makes me get all weepy when I see it.
The 40’s controls are really pretty amazing. They’re simple and intuitive, yet allow for a wide range of sounds. The single channel amp has bright and normal volume controls that are internally jumpered that can be blended together. These two knobs along with a treble, mid, bass and presence knob allow for a lot of interesting voicings. Particularly cool is the mid control, it’s pretty sensitive and can really change the character of the amp with just a twist of the dial. Another feature that stands out to my ear is the reverb. I’m impressed. Normally, on board, spring reverb gets in the way of touch sensitivity and tends to get mushy and cavernous at high gain levels while at the same time reducing gain in amps. By running the reverb in parallel rather than in series, the Roaring 40 manages to provide a really great reverb sound that seems to stay out of the way while playing, and doesn’t monkey with the immediate, connected feeling between the guitar and the amp. Kudos to Jimmy for also coming up with a defeatable master volume circuit that largely preserves the tone and feel of the amp when engaged.
The thing about the Roaring 40 that sets it apart from many of today’s amps is that it’s not based on another, already proven design. It’s not trying to be an updated, or improved version of anything else, it’s just it’s own thing. That’s cool in my opinion. Bear in mind, I’m a vintage guy, and have a distinct bias towards the classic amps of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. So the fact that this amp can inspire and impress this old fuddy duddy means Jimmy has found something special with the Roaring 40.
Here are a few clips of me playing the amp. The first is meant to show the amp’s clean sound and reverb. I went for a Dire Straits type of feel as I’ve always loved that tone. One day while playing the amp I stumbled across this sound and was pulled in that direction and I just went with it. The guitar is my usual ’86 AVRI Stratocaster with Virtual Vintage pickups and jumbo frets. I plugged straight into the amp and used my attenuator to add a little delay during the tracking. There’s a bit of reverb from Pro Tools during mixdown, but the lions share of the reverb on the track is from the amp. I think that this type of sound is deceptively difficult to conjure. To have enough gain to have notes sustain and yet not get splatty and maintain the clarity of the tone is a tall order. The player requires a steady hand and a nice amp to get this sound in my experience. I was really enjoying paying this style of music through the amp. I like that the amp is a modern design with a vintage heart…yet there’s no immediate reference for the sound. It takes some searching, but there are a lot of tones in this amp.
The second clip is a little wild. It’s kind of a space jam with a little funk groove at the end. The clip is meant to let you see how much usable gain there is on tap. I was impressed with the feedback and the sensitivity to picking pressure and volume knob riding. I used my 1966 ES-335, on the bridge pickup. The tone control is rolled back a bit to round off the tone. Once again I’m plugged straight into the amp and have the Ho attenuator in the signal path to add delay. The reverb you’re hearing is done in post-production. Notes would feedback or sustain effortlessly depending on where I positioned myself and how hard I was picking. With a wide-open backing track like this, it’s always fun to explore mixing different sounds, modes and approaches. Once again, I found the amp to help me find what I was looking to say. That’s pretty much what I look for in a piece of equipment, a facilitator. The point is that the gear can’t get in the way, and great gear helps further the process of making music. Nice job Jimmy.
Coming next time, we’ll be checking out Jimmy’s latest, a high gain head known as…the Outlaw.
Stay tuned, and stay positive.