When Blackstar first debuted its product line in 2007, it was made up of several valve based Distortion pedals and a “Boutique” amplifier line. Since then the range has grown to a range of proffessional amps and also a mass market affordable series.
Blackstar are an interesting company started up by 4 very key ex Marshall amp employees, 2 designers and 2 marketeers. With start up costs running just too high to build a UK factory the range is all made by an OEM in Korea and quality controlled in the UK.
I tried a series One 45 watt 2 x 12 combo recently and was mighty impressed, but the product that has gotten the most acclaim from guitarists so far seems to be the HT Dual Distortion.
The HT Dual to me is a very interesting design, about the size of a housebrick. It has a small and compact footprint. So it would fit neatly on most peoples pedalboards. Looking at the design its clearly influenced by several other pedals, notably the Original Mk 1 Marshall “Guvnor” pedal which was solid state and the valve based Mesa Boogie V Twin. The 2 footswitchable distortions are set up for either a classic gain/clean boost setting on channel 1, or a heavily saturated modern drive on Channel 2. So running through a clean amp, this device effectivly gives you 3 channels to play with.
I mention the single channel Guv’nor as the Uk made originals had probably one of the best EQ sections of any distortion pedal ever made, while the now defunt Boogie V Twin offers 2 footswitchable valve driven distortions in one box making it more akin to a pre-amp than a fuzzbox.
The HT Dual runs a single 12AX7 valve at 300v in push pull which means it actually responds like the front end of a valve guitar amp. There are 2 stacked pots at each end for gain and volume. Then a master 3 band EQ and Blackstars own patent pending ISF control. The ISF control reminds me of a little bit of the filter control of a Pro Co RAT.
ISF is basically a fine tune tone filter that allows you to move between the tonal characteristics of an American (6L6 tubes) or British (EL34 tubes) sounding guitar amp. So anti-clockwise we are in Mesa Boogie/Fender territory, so the low end gets tighter and the highs more brittle turn the dial clockwise and it fattens up and sofens up for a smoother Orange/Marshall JCM type tone.
This all might sound like snake oil at first but it does actually seem to work, with the gain up and the midrange cut on ch2, I turned the ISF hard left and got a pretty good “George Lynch” type tone, like the one on Dokkens ‘Back for the Attack’. Blackstar themselves have marketed the amps as being able to give the guitarist the “sound in their head”. After a little adjustment to the EQ and with the ISF at 11 O Clock, I found my own preferences quite easily. It doesn’t really imitate other amps, more that it just gives you a greater choice of finding your own sound.
As Blackstar claim this is more like a valve amp than a fuzzbox I decided to run a Keeley modded Boss SD-1 into the front of channel 1, this gave me a rich sustaining creamy high gain sound with loads of expression and was easily as good as overdriving the front end of my usual Marshall.
After a short time with this pedal I’d found usable tones I was really enjoying myself just playing. I can see it replacing the front end of my rig and enabling me to have everything back on the board, which means I’ll have no more amp footswitches and fx loop cables running back and forth. This will (hopefully) equate to less possibilities for things to go wrong. That in turn means I can go to a simpler amp and perhaps something more lightweight.
I can see other uses too. If you were a guitarist running into a multi FX unit like a BOSS GT series or Line 6 Pod Floor FX, this could mean access to much higher quality set of natrualistic distortions at a very reasonable price, theres even a flat line out for home recording.
The best part of this pedal though is the price, At £169.00 RRP its about half of its nearest credible competitors. Im talking the Koch Pedaltone (too expensive & way too big), Radial Plexitone ( despite the endorsers I’ve tried it and its too overrated by far) & finally the Hughes and Kettner Tubeman. (I’ve used the tubeman extensively and the Blackstar has the edge for both tone and ease of use).
Although the included 16VAC adaptor looks a bit flimsy, at this price I’ll forgive them and buy a spare.