Trace Elliot V-Type V4.
All 3 fenv46 by VTypeV4, on Flickr
Introduced in around 1996, the original Trace Elliot V-Type range were very much something of a juxtaposition in comparision to the then current model ranges. The all solid-state 7-band ranges of SM/SMC and flagship hybrid 12-band SMX models were very much the pinnacle of tone shaping, control and sophistication at the time. The V-Types took an altogether different approach using a much more traditional setup with simple rotary controls using a Fender style EQ, a far less garish livery and an emphasis on a great core tone without complication. The original V-Type head was an all valve affair sporting the original pre-amp (as can be seen on the V6 in the picture) coupled to a 220w (4x KT88) power stage. This model later became the V4 when it's larger stable-mate the V6 was introduced around '97 / '98. The V6 had a larger power stage claiming 400w from 6x KT88 output valves. Trace Elliot also complimented the range with sealed (as opposed to the usual vented) speaker cabinets comprising a 2x15, 4x12 and an 8x10 with Celestion speakers all carrying the same livery as the amplifier heads. Allied to the all-valve types, hybrid heads known as the 300H and 600H (300w and 600w respectively) appeared as well as 300w 4x8 and single fifteen combos completing the range.
By 2000 Trace had decided to update the range with an enameled all-black and green livery (more in-line with the then new 7 and and 12 band series) with bold chromed control knobs. They also chose to slim the range down with deletion of the hybrid heads and combos. The new series started with the monstrous V8 model which had a more advanced version of the V-Type pre-amp now complete with a dedicated overdrive / boost facility and a valve controlled compressor coupled to an 8x KT88, 400w output stage. I remember David Jacob demonstrating the V8 at the guitar show in Birmingham when I was 17 - both him and the amplifier were stunning.
The new V4 model was later added and was essentially a V8 with a smaller 4-valve, 200w output stage and a couple of detail differences. This second generation of V4 was available as a head, a 1x15 or 2x10 combo. These models are extremely rare with (according to Paul Stevens - former Trace Elliot designer - now at Blackstar I believe) only 45 in existence - 15 of each variation. The head variant is the subject of this review..
200w 4x KT88 output stage (4 or 8 ohm)
7-valve pre-amp stage
Fender style EQ with deep, bright and mid shift controls
Overdrive with dedicated gain and level control (foot switchable)
Valve controlled compressor (foot switchable)
Active and passive inputs
Series FX loop
Unbalanced line out (jack)
Balanced DI out (XLR)
Option to mute power stage for recording (no speaker required)
Half power switch
User adjustable bias (Trace Elliot called it VOBIC - something like Visual Output Bias Indication Circuit) with blue, green and red LED to indicate idle status
From left to right we have the active and passive inputs (jack only), a gain pot, a bright switch then the overdrive controls which are a second gain then level control. This is activated by either pulling the 'gain 2' pot or via the foot switch. A red LED illuminates on the panel when this is active. Next is the EQ section with a deep switch, then a bass, middle and treble trio with the middle knob being a pull switch for a different character. The second to last control is the compressor which has a switch for in / out and a control which is simply a threshold - a blue LED lights when gain reduction is occurring. Lastly is the master volume knob and furthest right is the stand-by switch. A Fender style green jewel lamp shows the status of the power.
Worthy of a mention here are the visible valves - the valve furthest to the right is an EM84 indicator valve (also known as a magic eye type) which has two luminous strips that fluctuate to indicate output power.
There's lots of options on the back too with the first being the main on / off switch complete with IEC (kettle style) electrical input. Next are the VOBIC LEDs, test points and recessed trim pot. Switches for the output stage for on / mute and full power / half power are to the left of the speaker connectors (jack / XLR) whilst to the right is the impedance switch with options for total loads of 4 and 8 ohms. Towards the right there is a jack socket for foot switching the drive and compressor options. Second to last is the DI output on an XLR socket with switching for pre / post EQ and ground / lift. Lastly there are 3 jack sockets one of which is an unbalanced line out and the last pair a series FX loop.
It sounds incredible - simple as that! I use it in conjunction with a Yamaha NE-1 and a Boss LMB-3 in the FX loop and a pair of SWR Goliath Jr3 (2x10) - that combination gives me the sound I hear in my head and that I've always chased.
The EQ section albeit Fender based is a somewhat different than the sound of my Bassman 135 - unsurprisingly, the Trace Elliot is a bit more Trace Elliot. I always considered that if you didn't know it was a Trace, I doubt that you'd mistake it for a Fender amplifier. It's a little more 'hollow' (but not particularly scooped) and a bit 'bigger' sounding with a natural warmth in the bottom end. As to be expected of an old-style passive EQ, the controls are interactive to a degree but not frustratingly so. The 'bright' switch works particularly well adding a degree of sizzle especially when the amp is used with cabs with HF components - it stays on for most situations with me. In contrast, the 'deep' switch doesn't appear to extend the bottom end so much as pull out some of the lower mids. It's good for a heavy dub type sound but for normal finger style, it loses just too much definition for my tastes so I tend to leave that switched out. Lastly, the mid shift gives a bit of a bump across most of the mid-range - it seems to emphasize everywhere from as low as 250Hz to around 2kHz - great on a noisy stage but I usually leave this switched out.
Regarding the overdrive facility, well, it's a bit 'prickly' to say the least! Given the 'all valve' topology of the amplifier, interestingly the overdrive itself is derived from back-to-back diodes although the gain staging is valve based. Activated by the 'pull' on the second gain knob, it's range can take you anywhere from punk trash and clang to Muse type sounds - with the tone rolled off on the bass, quite a convincing 'Deeper Underground' type sound can be coaxed from it. It can be really difficult describing a particular tone or timbre with words but the closest I can find are along the lines of 'hairy', 'prickly' and outright 'gnarly'..
With the updated version of the V-Type pre-amp, Trace Elliot decided the addition of a valve style compressor would be a welcome and useful addition. I absolutely agree - it's very smooth and unobtrusive but adds a certain fatness and definition to each note. Judging by the blue LED accompanying the compressors' in / out switch and threshold control knob, the fixed envelope appears to have a very slow attack and release time - this probably is at least partially responsible for the 'fatness' of it's character. According to Trace, the input for the compressor is side chained against itself, the control being a high-passed version of the original presumably so excessive bottom end doesn't overwhelm the control too much. I'm unaware of the circuit topology but Trace Elliot suggested it was based on 'vintage studio type compressors' so I'd have though some sort sort of variable Mu type possibly?
It's fair to say, the V4 has it's own sound which is shared with it's other V-Type siblings although by it's very design, has most in common with top-line V8 model. Personally, I haven't found much that is similar to a V-Type, strangely I think the closest thing in terms of a 'straight sound' comparison would be an EBS TD / Faffner rather than anything that would be seemingly closer - Fender Bassman, Marshall JMP or Hiwatt 200 for example. To my ears, the Trace Elliot is cleaner, less clangy and more modern than those vintage amplifiers although I'm sure parts of each could be seen in parts of it's design.
Probably worth mentioning also is that it will play very loudly through most cabinets. Conservatively rated at 200w RMS, this relatively small figure - by today's standards of 1kW amps the size of credit cards - is more than capable of playing every gig situation I could imagine - I've never needed it flat out even through less than perfect speakers. The power stage with 4x KT88s says pretty much everything about the power on tap - I rather liken it to subtle air scoop and exposed drive pulley in the bonnet of a vintage supercharged American muscle car. I have pinned the master volume on more than a few occasions just to see what happens and it's an experience - especially through the Trace 1084 (8x10) I owned for a while! Totally wild and not very me if I'm terribly honest but definitely worth it for a laugh.
I did read elsewhere on the internet that in common with some of the earlier line of Trace Elliot amplifiers with valve output stages such as the VA and Twin, Quattra and Hexa, the V-Types actually clip their driver / inverter stages before the power tubes clip. Whether this is true or not, I can't say - it was on Talkbass written by Psycho Bass Guy who did seem knowledgeable on such things.
Build Quality and Reliability:
The build quality is superb - the upholstery is spot on with no apparent joins or blemishes, the bright chromed corners, vents and knobs give a great contrast against the black and green panel. The enameling is spotless and still in great condition even 18 years after it was built. The V4 badge centered on the front grill is also finished to a superb standard and is usually the first part the eyes are drawn to on initial inspection. Electrically, big transformers, thick, isolated PCBs, ceramic valve sockets and gold plated jacks all point to these being a truly premium quality product. Trace Elliot seemed to put a great deal of effort into the build quality of these amplifiers even if other products in the range at the time weren't quite up to their mid-eighties hey-day.
Moving on to reliability, it seemed to have a period of eating fuses randomly during it's initial settling down period - I owned it from new as it was purchased as NOS in 2003 from Gavin at GM-Audio who looked after all the warranty and parts after Trace Elliot closed. At the time, it was carted here, there and everywhere and did lots of gigs nationally. After about twelve months, I changed the output valves to the then new 're-issue' Tung Sol 6550 type valves which also worked really well but did little for the occasional fuse consumption. It appears that they're sensitive to different speaker cabinets and the slight impedance differences (even with the correct matching 8-8 or 4-4) can cause the bias to run too hot and eventually take a fuse. I always carry a little screwdriver to adjust it just in case I wind up using someone else's speaker cabinet - it's different with every cab but inspite the inconvenience, it hasn't done a fuse for years and the EHX KT88s installed 3 / 4 years ago are still doing very well.
It's reasonably heavy (24Kg) and is around the typical size for a large valve amplifier so bulk and weight with only a central strap handle may be an issue for some users but the visual impact and more importantly, the tonal characteristic are completely worth it. Having also previously owned a 4808 combo and currently having a V6 on loan, it's been very interesting to compare the V4 against both. It's been a good few years since I let the 4808 go so I'll compare on the V6. The V4 was a little smoother than the V6 but it terms of their core tones, there was next to nothing in it - tolerance in the components and different valves probably account for any subtleties in the character. I'd happily gig either (or both!) for any show. There's not a massive amount difference in terms of power between the two - the V6 does play a little louder before breaking up but there really isn't that much in it - 3dB assuming both are making their claimed horsepower seems about right.
It's a little sad to say that less than 12 months after mine was built, Trace Elliot as we knew it no longer existed having been closed down by parent company, Gibson. It seems unlikely that anything like the V-Types will be made again - Peavey who now own the name seem to be using the Trace Elliot brand as an outlet for the latest in small, light and powerful amplifiers so whilst it's great to see that we can now once again buy a new Trace Elliot, my interests and affections will always lie with the older line of products.
135 and V4 by VTypeV4, on Flickr
As a final note, if you come across the opportunity to try one, I'd recommend it as I found the sound I was always searching for.
UnderwarwickV4 by VTypeV4, on Flickr