Maybe it's love for the underdog, but I dig Traynor amps. When I play music instead of recording it, my main amp is a big-ass '70s Traynor Mark 3 - a Twin-style circuit with EL34s. It's an oddball amp, and I love it. So I jumped on the chance to review this little DarkHorse 15H. Of course, today's Traynor isn't exactly the same company as it was 40 years ago, but it's a lot closer than many of the reanimated amp brands on the market today. Traynor has been a member of the Yorkville family since day one, and they still build most of their amps in Canada.

The DH15H is Traynor's take on a low-wattage "lunchbox" tube head. Lunchbox amps promise tube-amp crunch at sane decibel levels - great if you're placing a guitar amp in the same room as a mic'ed drum kit, or maybe if you're recording at home and don't want to injure your roommates. The amp itself is tiny - about 12'' wide and 10 lbs in weight - and it looks understated but cool. During the month that the DH15H lived in my studio, every guitar player who walked in the door immediately saw the amp and said, "Ooh, what's that?" My review amp came with a matching DarkHorse X12 cabinet. The DHX12 is a small, lightweight 1×12 cab, made of solid plywood and loaded with a Celestion G12M Greenback. It feels sturdy, it's portable, and it sounds good with the DH15H head (the low-wattage Greenback speaker is a good pairing), as well as with other amps. I like it. Props for the vintage silver grille-cloth too. The amp and cabinet are in fact both made in Canada, and both carry two-year unlimited warranties.

The front panel has the proper number of knobs for a guitar amp (six or fewer), and a small number of tone options. First, the power amp has two modes: 12 watts through a pair of 6V6s, and 1 watt through a 12AU7. Second, a small switch controls where the tone stack appears in the preamp circuit: "Brit" is set up like a Marshall circuit, "USA" is like a Fender, and "Pure" bypasses the tone stack altogether. And that's it for options. Simple, like a guitar amp should be.

Okay, how's it sound? In short, it sounds like a real tube amp. It doesn't have tons of its own character, but it puts on other faces well. The tone stack switch offers three dramatically different flavors, which respond differently to gain and volume settings, and yield tones that range from fat clean ones to thinner, more overdriven tones. The Brit and USA settings don't correspond with my personal idea of Marshall or Fender tones (to me they seem backwards!), but all three settings are definitely useful. While tracking guitar re-amps for Sie lieben Maschinen, I put the DarkHorse head in my control room and ran a speaker cable to the mic'ed cab in the live room. This is a great way to hear what an amp's controls really do. Between the three tone stack settings and the simple but effective bass/treble tone knobs, the DarkHorse gave me a manageable set of distinctly different sounds. I was able to quickly dial in great tones for each part and pedal combination. It's worth adding that the DH15H isn't a high-gain amp; its gain maxes out with more of a classic master volume type of crunch. I think that's great; when I record bands I often find myself asking if we can back off their gain.

I've always liked the idea of a 1 watt guitar amp - that is, the sound of power-tube saturation at non-face-melting volume - but I don't love the DarkHorse's 1 watt mode. For one thing, 1 watt isn't quiet! Wide open, the 1 watt amp makes well over 100 dB SPL. So don't expect to record it in your apartment at midnight. (Traynor tells me that they added a 1/2 watt mode to their YBA-1 MOD1 head for this reason.) Secondly, when I record in 1 watt mode, I'm not really fooled into thinking I'm hearing a big amp set to stun. Maybe that's the 12AU7's saturation character, or maybe it's because the amp can't push the speaker very hard - probably both. The 12 watt mode is louder, of course, but it also sounds richer and more interesting. All that said, though I might not choose to record the 1 watt mode, it still came in handy. My band did a few no-drummer practices at low volumes, and Jon, our other guitar player, grabbed the Traynor rig. He sounded great at conversational volume levels and gave me a minor case of tone envy.

I also took the DarkHorse to my favorite amp tech, Craig Mueller at Powerage in Oakland, to get his take on it. Craig's a tough critic, but when he cracked open the amp, he said, "Hey, this is put together pretty well! From a tech standpoint, it looks very serviceable. Especially compared to the other tiny amps I've seen."

And recently, my friend Ron Guensche used my studio for a tracking session with the band Wild Decade. Ron reported, "Holy crap. The Traynor ended up being the only amp we used. Never mind the fact I double mic'ed the silverface Twin; mic'ed and DI'ed the GK 800RB; double mic'ed the Bassman; and slapped a Shure 546 on the Traynor for fun. I was playing with amps before the band arrived, and the Traynor was the last one I tried. It still had a cable in it, so it was the first one the client tried. We moved to the Bassman for a while, then just stopped trying amps. He was that enamored of the Traynor. We used both power-tube settings for different textures on layered guitars. A cool trick was using the Moog Minifooger Drive pedal hot into the Traynor set to the 12AU7 output tube; it was easy to get feedback at super low volumes, even using a solid-body Tele. Then for the real surprise, we ended up using it for bass going into the Mesa 4×12, mic'ed with an AKG D 112. Nice pairing. Very good R&B tone."

So while I wouldn't trade my vintage Bassman or JMP for this $500 12 watt amp, another engineer and client did just that! Overall, it's a cool little amp. If your studio doesn't have many guitar amps, this Traynor makes a lot of sense. It's small, flexible, and sounds good.

(DH15H $499 street, DHX12 $299;

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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