By Jack Devine
In a world full of amp designs that pay homage to, or frankly clone the great amplifiers of the past, it’s always refreshing to see someone try something different. Apparently, Paul Sanchez, founder of Red Iron Amps, seems to feel the same way. All of his designs are far removed from the standard Fender or Marshall genealogy. This month I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of his creations. It’s the amp that is now called the Bronx. It started out a few years ago under a different name: “Red Sonja” for its owner’s wife......a clever ploy to avoid gear acquisition reprisals! The amp has gone through some voicing and option changes since its creation. Now, after a few years of tweaking the circuit and adding a tonestack lift, it’s done and ready for you to enjoy.
Sonically, the amp reminds me of a bigger, more robust Valco with some Trainwreck flavor mixed in. Fat, raw, corpulent, saturated tones come flowing out of the amp with ease. I’m told the design also shares some DNA with early Ampeg designs. Whatever combination of amps spawned the tones that ultimately became the Bronx, I don’t hear them- I just hear the Bronx. The feel is chewy and lively, with a lot of touch sensitivity and dynamic response. Push it hard it snarls, ease up your picking pressure…it smooths out a bit. The sound has a bold, thick, low-midrange emphasis with some very tasty “chirp” up top that helps single notes cut through the substantial gain the circuit has to offer.
The Bronx is powered by a pair of 6550 output tubes. Historically these are not my favorite tube, but in this context they sure do work. The pre-amp is driven by a trio of 6SL7 tubes. Kind of obscure, these octals are very robust, an old school tube with a different sound than ax7s. The amp is very simple in its circuit, and layout. Stripped of any excesses, the emphasis is on keeping the signal path short and the tone pure and raw. I guess it’s all these things combined with Paul’s steadfast dedication to traditional point to point wiring that help give the Bronx it’s unique voice.
Red Iron Amps, have also embraced a different look as well as a different sound. This head is housed in a beautiful Mesquite cab ($2,188) with an engraved nameplate. There’s also a more traditional looking tolex cab ($1,999) available for the less adventurous or budget minded player. The amp has but three unlabeled knobs and a pair of 1/4” input jacks. After a few seconds with the amp, their functions become evident. Left to right: Volume, Bass, Treble and a footswitch for a tonestack bypass ($150 option) and guitar input. That’s it. When the tonestack is bypassed, you’re basically just using one knob to control drive levels- gain levels come way up, and the rest is controlled from the guitar and by the players touch. It feels different at first, but soon you start to hear and feel the correlation between how your playing techniques and dynamics actually alter the ratio of highs and lows on the guitar. This realization, combined with pickup selection, volume level and picking placement all combine for a very interactive and fulfilling playing experience. Funny thing is… all of this is taking place with a big smile on your face. Nice.
My main gripe about the amp is the clean sound, or rather… the lack thereof. As inspired as I was when I had it wound up with the tonestack bypassed, I was conversely nonplussed when I tried to coax clean tones from the amp. I think the amp excels in the mid-gain to all out crush sounds. So for a studio guy like me, I’d grab the Bronx for succulent leads, it’s impressive grind and chirpy chime, but skip it for pretty cleans.
The soundclip here highlights the Bronx’s solo voice. The tune has a spacey intro that gives way to a grooving rock vibe with a pretty dark edge. The guitar used is my typical ‘86 AVRI Stratocaster. It’s my beater, but is seemed to really get along well with the amp…especially the bridge pickup. This is straight into the amp with the tonestack bypassed. The amp is wound up pretty good, but not cranked, and is being attenuated by my Ho attenuator. Then the signal goes to a 2x12 openback cab with a pair of Scumnico 65 watt speakers. I miked up the cab with an SM57 and then to Pro Tools via my Chandler Limited mic-pre. No EQ or compression. There’s reverb and delay added at mixdown to add some space.
I know the track is focused around single note lines, but I should add that I was also very taken by the amp for crunchy chords and riffs. I couldn’t stop playing hairy, gainy, ZZ Top style riffs…it was silly how good it sounded in that application. The Bronx is a loose and wild thing, raw and nasty and full of glorious abandon. As stated, I wouldn’t come here for cleans, but when it’s time to rumble, this one packs a punch. If you’re playing hard rock but want something different than a Marshall or whatever… I’d seriously consider the Bronx. If you’d like to set up a two amp rig I think it would awesome as the “Lead” channel, it’s got oomph, all kinds of swirly, raw textured artifacts with tons of character and boasts a great touch sensitivity at modest volumes level to boot.
For more information, check out Red Iron Amps at www.redironamps.com. As an aside…I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Paul talking with him a few times. I can tell he’s a real modest and curious guy who wants to make his customers happy while designing amps. That willingness to help get to core of what you’re after as a player is something I really like in a boutique amp builder and I think deserves special notice.
So that’s it for now…Next up Soloway Guitars and the NYA model come to Brooklyn.
Stay tuned and stay positive.