Since I got my basic cheap guitar earlier this year, and carrying on with the Strat, I’ve been playing through headphones plugged into an effects unit. This is actually quite a good arrangement, as it’s allowed me to fiddle around with different sounds and have a bit of fun without disturbing anyone. But the time comes with an electric guitar when you really do need to, well, Make Some Noise. And so, I was in the market for a small practice amplifier. It didn’t need to be very big, and it certainly didn’t need to be all that loud, but it needed to be good enough for me to stick with it and not want to start looking for something else shortly afterwards.
Now in the mumble years since I last tried to learn to play the guitar, technology has moved on. It’s not just that little matter of the internet providing tons of lessons, and making it easy to get hold of whatever kit you want, either. You see, while your actual serious musicians going out to play in front of people still often prefer the sound of valves (“tubes” to Americans), it’s now possible to emulate the sound of such things using modern electronics. The upshot is that you can have one little box that imitates the sounds of several different, and often much more expensive boxes, which is quite attractive. It’s also possible for these things to make a wide variety of sounds, including the kind of distortion that used to require a lot of volume, at the kind of level that won’t upset the neighbours, which is always worth thinking about.
There are lots of these devices, but I was attracted to this new range from Blackstar. They’re relatively cheap (list price of the entry-level 10 Watt model is £89) and also quite small, so they won’t get in the way too much.
Having watched a load of YouTube demos, and read an actual review, I was convinced that one of these would do the job, and once they were actually in stock, I ordered one from Guitar Guitar. On they day in question, I didn’t really have time to go shopping at lunchtime, so I ordered it from the website, with free next day delivery.
It arrived as promised, and once I got it home, I set it up and started to play around. And yes, it pretty much does what it says on the tin. You can use the preset patches, which offer six different sounds to appeal to different tastes, or play around with the settings (gain, Blackstar’s own setting that they like to call ISF, and a selection of effects which can be used in combination). So far, I like what I’ve been hearing. There’s a useful headphone socket if you need some silent practice, and the sound through that is pretty nice too.
You can install Blackstar’s Insider software on your Windows or Mac computer. This allows editing and saving of patches, and links to their web-based community where customers share patches they’ve created.
Unfortunately, at the present time, the Mac version is ever-so-slightly flaky on OS X 10.9. Like a number of people in the forums, I’ve found that while the OS, and other software such as Garageband, can see the amp just fine, Insider totally fails to connect to it. The source of the problem is the curious decision to base the OS X software not only on Microsoft’s more or less abandoned Silverlight, but also on the Mono framework, an open source attempt to make .Net work on platforms other than Windows. Putting my IT professional hat on, I have to say that this is not a sensible way of writing apps for OS X. For software in most areas, I’d let it go, but given the popularity of Macs with musicians, this does seem a wee bit silly. It’ll probably be fixed at some point, but for now bear in mind that if you get a Blackstar amp and want to edit patches, you’ll need a Windows computer (or possibly a virtual machine, which might work). Though some reports suggest that the software doesn’t work on all Windows configurations either. If you can live with the restriction of not being able to edit patches in software (you can save them directly on the amp, so you’re not stuck with the defaults), This is a rather nice little practice amp with some extra bits and bobs for the price.
The bigger models (20 Watt and 40 Watt) can switch between more patches with an optional footswitch, which may be useful for some. I decided to stay with the smallest model…
 Another thing that’s due for a post…
 I’m working on being polite.