The Honeymoon is Over…
(…but the love is still strong…)
It’s about time I actually write a detailed review of my Quilter Tone Block 200 head. I’ve been using it regularly now since Halloween 2014. The honeymoon is over, which means my opinions of the Tone Block as expressed now are not biased by the excitement of owning a new piece of equipment. Any superlatives I use now are based on lasting feelings of owning and using the Tone Block unclouded by the desire to be happy with my new purchase because I’ve just parted with some money and don’t want to feel short changed!
Almost every time I turn off the Tone Block after practicing and tone-tweaking at home I find myself smiling, patting the amp on the “head” and muttering, happily “I love my rig”. The novelty has not worn off.
I also find it a good time to report on the virtues of this amp because not too long ago Quilter released another small guitar head called the 101 Mini Head and for now at least the 101 Mini has taken the limelight. After some time considering if and how a 101 Mini Head would serve me better than my Tone Block I came to the conclusion that whilst it would be very nice to have, it will not serve me any better – at least not right now.
Who is this Amplifier For?
The answer is not that straightforward, but basically it’s for those who want to build a rig around a selection of pedals into a reliable and dependable platform. The 101 Mini Head has more built in tonal-shaping features, more gain on tap and therefore more versatility than the Tone Block if being used as a stand-alone amp without needing so much assistance from gain pedals. If you like to crank your amp and control your tone with the guitar’s volume control then the 101 Mini Head makes more sense than the Tone Block 200. However, if like me, you change your mind about what kind of overdrive tone you like at any given time, you may find the Tone Block the perfect answer as it gives you a blank canvas to create your own voicings based on what pedals you decide to use. It’s very easy to change a pedal and transform the core sound of your rig due to that change.
For me, this is what makes the Tone Block a secret weapon of sorts. Depending on what you put in front of it, you can create a pretty close tonal match to any amplifier you choose and with an array of “character” or “amp-in-a-box” pedals, you can select any number of these classic-sounding amps all in a very small, lightweight rig. Example being, if a pedal manufacturer comes out with a better Fender Tweed flavoured overdrive then you can just go swap it out and your “Tweed Tone Block” is instantly upgraded, so to speak.
Admittedly I’ve been constantly flipping pedals and trying out different pedal board setups for the last year to drive most people insane, but I think I’m getting there – “There” being the point where I can go from clean, spanky clean like Nile Rodgers all the way to Neil Young’s “Amp about to self-destruct” dirty on one pretty small pedal board (recently expanded slightly to improve sonic performance). I’m not a high-gain player, but if I were I could easily have chosen other types of overdrive/distortion pedals to get me there and still have the pristine clean right there at my feet.
With a cheap Kustom Defender 1×12 cabinet to complete the setup I have a great, lightweight rig that I find a pleasure to play. Soon I’m going to put together a 1×8 cab with a high-powered 8″ speaker to position at the front of the stage as a personal guitar monitor and only bring the bigger cab if I know my guitar won’t be going through the PA. (My band mates still complain I’m too loud at 10 watts, so I’m trying to find ways to bring down my stage sound, whilst still being able to hear myself clearly).
The Tone Block did create a problem for me for a while, but it was a nice problem. I couldn’t decide which settings I preferred the sound of. Being a “set and forget” type of player I wanted to find a single setting that I could always use that would give me the platform capable of delivering everything from clean to filth equally well. I think I’m close to solving my little puzzle.
As you turn the contour knob to the right, moving the tone into more Marshall-style territory the gain increases. Settings on the right roll off lower frequencies and this creates an apparent increase in high-mid and high frequencies. At the same gain settings the “Marshall” side (right-hand side) has more grit, roar and basically, as you’s expect, more of a rock flavour. Over to the left and the mids are scooped like a Fender Blackface amp and because of the mid frequencies being attenuated, the gain goes with it, so at the same gain setting, the left side sounds cleaner than the right side. The middle is flat and neutral and the gain sits somewhere between the two extremes too.
I love the contour at 9 o’clock for clean playing, especially for funk, soul and reggae, I love it at 12 o’clock for general “clean” playing as it’s just at that point of breakup if I play harder, but clean ish if I strum normally (but doesn’t do pristine clean) and I love the contour at 3 o’clock when I want a base setting that is crunchy, but still pretty defined – This is all with my Stratocasters and with the gain at one click past 3 o’clock.
What I have found is that I can replicate these 3 favourite tonal settings of mine with a couple of pedals. I set the contour at 12 o’clock and have one pedal setup to create the mid scoop of the 9 o’clock position and another to setup the mid/high lift of the 3 o’clock position. Being fanatical about cheap pedals these days I’m happy to say I’ve found my solution to creating these tone/gain presets using those very cheap pedals that I have been using for the last year or two!
My “clean up” pedal and “extra juice” pedal are as follows:
- Clean up: Donner Boost Killer – An RC Booster clone, gain on minimum, volume at 1 o’clock, bass & treble both at about 3 o’clock. The pedal boosts bass and treble, but the overall output level is lower than with the pedal bypassed, thus creating a reduction in the mids between the points of the boosted bass and treble. It’s close, really close to the 9 o’clock setting of the Tone Block straight. (see the video below for a demo of the Boost Killer into the Tone Block)
- Crunch: Equally, the Boost Killer (I have 2 of them) can be used for this and I did have it set up successfully replicating the bass rolloff and increase in overall output, but I experimented more and found that my Donner Blues Drive (a tube screamer clone with a trick up its sleeve) did an almost identical job straight off without much tweaking, making it easier to reset if the knobs get moved around in transit. It also has a little bit more compression/gain, being an overdrive rather than a clean boost, so actually sounded a bit nicer than the 3 o’clock position on the Tone Block contour. Later I found out it was almost the same sounding as the contour all the way to the right, but with less of a loss in low end!
The trick up the sleeve of the Donner Blues Drive (which is the same circuit as the Mooer Green Mile) is worth mentioning because it overcomes the extreme low-end loss of the typical tubescreamer and provides a lot more output and smoother-sounding gain. This trick is the “hot/warm” switch. In the “warm” position it’s pretty much stock Tubescreamer, but in the “hot” position it’s more of a boost with the compression you’d get from an overdrive and it’s a much fatter sound. However it’s pretty dark sounding I find until you max out the tone control, then it becomes very smooth, even and balanced with some clarity, but not excessively bright. The result is, comparing it to the right side of the Tone Block’s contour control a similar tone but less fizzy sounding.
Settings for the Blues Drive: Tone-max, Level – about 1 o’clock and gain-minimum. Hot switch ‘ON”
Boost Killer into Tone Block Demo
Now I have a 3-channel Tone Block of sorts. Default (all pedals off) is the semi-clean/semi-breakup core sound (I call it the Hiwatt setting), the Cleanup pedal helps create a Blackface Fender-style clean, which is pretty close to a Twin Reverb to my ears and the Crunch pedal helps create, well… crunch for a more rock style rhythm sound – my Marshall setting.
Before the tone shaping pedals I have two boosts: Both of them are supposedly EP Booster clones. I don’t know how close they are because I’ve never used a real EP Booster, but they sound different from each other and both sound great! I think one is based on the v1 and the other is based on the v2 of the EP Booster.
The first boost in the chain is the one I use for solos. It gives the biggest push into all the other gain stages in the chain. On clean settings it’s bright, twangy with girth, all at the same time. Into the more “gainy” settings, it provides sustain, more distortion and aggression. The second boost is less bright and has less output, which I use to give a bit of a turbocharge to my core rhythm settings. It basically gives me more of the tone I’m using – more gain, more sustain, a little more level, but still pretty-much the same tone.
Normally I’ll select one of the three core sounds and leave it alone for the duration of the song it was selected for. In my mind I can use a Twin Reverb, a Hiwatt/Vox or a Marshall “Plexi” with my boost pedals there to push them harder when required. I can also stomp on my “Marshall” sound while running into my “Twin Reverb” whenever I want to go over the edge a bit and if I really want to cause trouble I can turn up the gain on either or both the “Twin” and the “Plexi”. As I mentioned earlier I can go from pristine clean to a downright mess very easily!
Strategically placed in this gain chain is a noise gate after the crunch and the two boosts, but before the cleanup pedal. A delay pedal is last, used mostly for rhythmic stuff and as a special effect (no subtle delays from me!)Before all the gain pedals I have (in this order) a wah, a phaser and a chorus. I prefer my modulation before gain and always prefer the wah before everything.
So this review of the Quilter Tone Block ended up being a review of most of my rig, but realy I feel that the Tone Block by itself is only a small part of the picture. I’d be very surprised to find any player who uses the Tone Block exclusively without any pedals. It’s a worthy stand-alone amp in it’s own right, but I find a choice selection of pedals will really unlock the magic of this amp and it is for this reason that I still think it’s Quilter’s best amp. It’s a totally accommodating platform for the pioneering guitar player to create their own tonal signature without anything getting in the way of your tonal shaping and without any features that might become a distraction. If an amp has a feature of any kind, it’s just instinct to want to use it. If it’s not there then it can’t be overused or become a hinderance. There’s nothing unnecessary about the Tone Block. It has everything you need if you want 100% control over how you sound!
Pros & Cons?
I have only one complaint about the Tone Block, but if you read all the other reports from many other players, there are a lot of guys who wouldn’t share my complaint. That complaint is that I really don’t like the sound of the Direct out. It is supposed to sound better if you keep the speaker connected, but I found there was hardly any difference in tone whether the speaker is connected or not. I was hoping it would be a mic’d speaker emulated tone like my Palmer PDI-09, but it isn’t. Clean it sounds quite nice, but as soon as you step on a boost or an overdrive then it sounds like any other DI I’ve tried without speaker emulation. It’s still very useable though. You can still record it through Impulse Responses of cabs into your computer recording system or you could slave out that signal to another device like another power amp and cab I suppose. It would also make a great DI if you were using the Tone Block for bass.
I was very happy to find a while ago that my Palmer PDI-09 DI box with speaker emulated output fitted perfectly with the holes on the side of the Tone Block, so I screwed it on the side and now I have a speaker emulated DI right there on my Tone Block anyway. I use it live all the time and it always sounds great coming out of the PA.