Smx 1020 by VTypeV4, on Flickr
As the decade of the yuppy, Boy George, questionable fashion styles and many other cliches associated with the 1980s was coming to a close, Trace Elliot were riding on the wave of their success of their (then) highly sophisticated and high powered range of bass amplifiers. Noted for their unique sound and unmistakable aesthetics which included a large graphic EQ, green facia paint and a glowing UV strip, Trace amps were seen behind many of the great players of the time. The then current 'Series 6' range introduced in around '88 was still hip, modern and built on the reputation of the previous 'Mark V' series with a notable extension of the 11-band range now up to twelve which were coupled to improved and more powerful (up to 600w) solid state output stages. There was also a range of valve amplifiers with brushed steel panels which had modified versions of the GP7 and GP12 pre-amplifiers and multi-tube output stages up to 380w which were known as the 'Twin Valve', 'Quattra Valve' and 'Hexa Valve' models. These were developed from the equally sought after VA models - high times, indeed.
As an ever innovative company, Trace Elliot had not stood still and continued developing their latest range of bass rigs which appeared on the market in around '93. Both 7 and 12-band models had additional features (such as EQ balance, compression and valve stages) and improvements over the previous Series 6 versions. The new range designed by Clive Button was to be known as the 'Sound Management' series with the pre-amp stages now known as the GP7-SM and GP12-SMX respectively. The SM models had an update in '97 (around the time of the Gibson purchase) to become the SMC range now with a simplified dual band compressor whilst SMX models would almost last until the end of the millennium virtually unchanged and to many, represent the very pinnacle of Trace Elliot amplification.
Sadly, after 2000, production was being wound off by the bosses at Gibson and the replacement GP12X never saw the same success as its predecessor. Problems in terms of reliability and build quality also became apparent which did little aid the reputation of theses models and by 2002, production had stopped. Fast forward to 2005 and the brand was now owned by Peavey who had developed new 'Trace Elliot' amplifiers built at Peavey UK in Corby and later in the US. These only saw moderate success due to their own reliability problems, the rather steep price tags and weight - the dawn of the lightweight amp was upon us. Today, the Trace Elliot brand still exists and the ELF is one of the smallest, lightest amplifiers on the market and according to many online reviews is solid, reliable and capable of holding it's own at gigs although the question of whether it truly sounds like the amps of old is still somewhat divisive. I can't comment as I've not tried one yet - I've only ever seen one example in the real world.
Smx art biyang by VTypeV4, on Flickr
The SMX has an array of knobs, sliders and buttons across the front panel which on initial inspection seem a little cluttered and complex. A closer second look will make more sense of things with each stage having it's own section. Initial input on the far left has a single jack socket with an active / passive switch plus there's the usual input gain knob although the input level is metered by a 'traffic light' system for optimum gain. Allied to this, there's a blend control for both transistor and valve stages, each giving a different 'flavour' or a balance of both. Next are the tonal adjustments with two switchable pre-shapes and the switchable 12-band graphic EQ with an independent level control - the status of both are indicated with LEDs next to each switch. Towards the right, there's the 'Sound management' section which, at it's centre has the EQ balance and this acts as a highpass / lowpass filter when turned clockwise / anti clockwise respectively. Flanked either side of the balance control are separate controls for the low band (left) and high band (right) compressors each of which has a different envelope suited for each frequency band. The knobs act as a threshold (and possibly a subtle increase in ratio - difficult to say) control with maximum compression obtained with the controls fully clockwise. Finally, on the far left, an output level adjusts playing volume and unbalanced line out connection levels, a standy switch works as a handy mute / tune plus there's an effects level blend for the FX loop. As a bonus on the non-rackmount 400w and 600w models, a UV strip light illuminates the control panel so even on effectively black stages, the status of all controls are easily seen.
The rear panel is different on each version.
AH300-SMX: 250 / 300w model is a compact 2u chassis and only has a single DI out (XLR) and a single, mono FX loop. Early 250 models came with a convection-cooled output stage but later 280w 'Bi-Polar Bear' stages were fan cooled. Very late models were fitted with the 320w Clive Button output board after reliability problems became an issue.
AH400-SMX: 350 / 400w model is a larger 3u chassis, has two FX loops (one parallel, stereo and high passed; the other series, mono and full range), 3 DI out (two post EQ, one pre) plus a dual mono line out. I can't find any reference regarding differences between the 350w and 400w versions other than their cosmetics.
AH600-SMX: 300w + 300w with the rest as above but with additional switching for mono full range, stereo full range or bi-amp operation plus an adjustable crossover with level controls on each power amplifier section. These were unchanged other than cosmetically.
Stand alone SMX pre-amp: As AH400-SMX but in smaller 2u chassis with adjustable crossover and high pass / low pass line outputs.
Hybrid pre-amp & SS output stage
400w at 4 ohm, 300w at 8 ohm
Traditional class A/B topology - heavy iron and big capacitors
12-band graphic equalizer
Switchable pre-shaped EQ curves
Active & passive input
Dual band compressor
Series and parallel effects loops
Pre and post EQ direct outputs (XLR)
Post master volume line outs (Jack)
All references forward from here will be specific to the 400SMX.
Smx art biyang by VTypeV4, on Flickr
The baked in Trace Elliot sound isn't suited to all tastes, generes and sonic spaces - pre-shape one (general scoop centered at 400hz with slight boosts at 50hz and 2K5) is very '80s and quite harsh - number two is similar but less extreme. This is the usual association with these amps however, they are far more than a one-trick pony - the graphic EQ can be switched in to make some far more useful and real world sounds. Personally I use a combination of shape one and further adjust the sound with graphic for a smooth, more modern sound. With such an array of options and combination, I expect pretty much any sound could be coaxed from punk and rock through to jazz and funk - I've never struggled to get a sound I like.
The only potential downfall that could be leveled at the SMX is the lack of overdrive facility but that's not what these amps are about - powerful, clean and loud is where it's at - much like the SWR range albeit a different character. I'm sure a Sansamp before the amp could easily dirt things up if that was your thing.
Now to the jewel in the crown of the SMX; that dual band compressor. In studios, multi-band compression is common place and can be very useful in shaping a sound whether that be individual channels as part of a mix or a piece in the puzzle of mastering but is rarely seen on instrument amplification. Trace Elliot saw it fit do adorn the SMX with a dual band compressor so frequencies below 250hz will be treated differently than those above. Judging by ear (so this might be less than absolute fact) the low band has a slow (ish) attack and release and a soft knee which adds a 'solid' feel to each note. Note definition is helped and it gives you something to 'lean' against when digging in. The high-band feels to be a much faster envelope so personally, I use only a little of this as too much seems to kill the note and it starts feel like the dynamics have been all but ironed out. Whilst I'm used to comprehensive compressors, the simple two-knob design of the SMX works just as well in both live and studio situations - I feel like a lot of adjustments and tweaking were done at the design stage to get it right.
Given how flexible and tweakable the pre-amp is, it's very difficult to define but in terms of quality, it sounds great . I feel the Trace Elliot with it's extensive options will either help you shine and get you exactly where you want to go or it will hang you out to dry. To get the best out of it, knowing your frequencies and how they sonically 'fit' on the graphic EQ is a massive help plus listening and feeling for the appropriate levels of compression is also key - I always compare EQ and compression to booze; some can be good so more might be better unless it becomes too much - it can be a tricky balance sometimes. Taking the time and really getting to know it is the solution as they aren't really a 'plug and play' amplifier.
The single 400 watt output stage is very capable and definitely worthy of it's rating - at the time of writing, amplifiers of three times the claimed power are common place - many which weigh half (or less!) than the old Trace. Personally, I've never needed it 'full tilt' and at rehearsal it barely sits above idle. Despite it's 'modest' rating, make no mistake, this thing is 'proper', capable of rolling with the loudest of situations and finding the limits of most speaker enclosures!
Smx art biyang by VTypeV4, on Flickr
Build quality and reliability:
In terms of build, I can't really criticize it on any level. On the outside, the green 'rat furr' (as many call it?) is bobble free and accurately upholstered, the riveted stainless steel corners are precisely fitted and the flip handles are highly over-spec'd. Looking to the front control panel, the black and bright green contrast each other very well with the writing having a very clean and defined edge - even with the UV light off. All the sliders, control knobs, switches and sockets have a 'solid feel' with just the right amount of damping to feel neither cheap or stiff.
On the inside, the story is much the same, most notably the power supply and caps. The transformer is a huge torroidal type which is no doubt where a good percentage of the amplifiers' weight lies - I've seen smaller in higher rated pro spec power amplifiers. Nestled between the transformer and the output board are the two equally over specified filter capacitors. A large (not too noisy, thankfully) fan is mounted on the left side in the centre to cool the internals. It's fair to say Trace Elliot went 'belt and braces' with the supply and output stage of these amps as they're far more impressive looking than their smaller 280w stable mates despite only a moderate claimed power difference. Looking elsewhere inside sees thick, good quality PCBs with a few smaller individual boards accompanying the main three, reasonably tidy wiring all housed in a thick steel chassis. No complaints here.
To be clear, this is the second 400SMX I've owned - I foolishly sold the last one in 2006. I've never had an ounce of bother with either example (or indeed the 600 I owned for a while) not even so much as a fuse. 100% trouble free. Unlike the all-valve amplifiers that I own, the SMX doesn't have any quirks or oddities (they all do that, sir!) and whilst this arguably strips it of a degree character, it goes hand in hand with it's truly professional design. This particular example was made in 1998 and have little doubt saying it works just as well today as it did when it came out of the factory.
It's very difficult for me to accept that production of these things ceased more than twenty years ago - they were the pinnacle of design and something that 15 year old me aspired to one day own along with a Warwick bass. As mentioned on this forum - often at great length, many times over - the world has since moved on and modern amplifiers are now smaller, weigh less; are more capable than ever plus their accompanying speaker cabinets are made from lighter woods plus the drivers contained within can play louder and lower with less distortion than those of even 10 years ago. Mauling 120 Kg worth of heavyweights is now optional!
Whilst we're talking of weight, the big SMX weighs something in the region of 24 Kg (we're into valve amp territory here) which is just out of the question for those suffering with frailty or other physical ailments - a modern day ELF weighs less than one kilogram and even something like a Genz Benz Streamliner 900 weighs less than 4 Kilos. Despite of all that weight and physical bulk, the performance is unquestionable and is still more than capable of holding it's own against anything modern (once you've EQ'd the '80s out!) - irrespective of claimed power.
Smx art biyang by VTypeV4, on Flickr