Is it an amp or a pedal... or a DI... or outboard gear?!? The Big Trees really is all things to all people. Having used the Audio Kitchen Little Chopper guitar amp [Tape Op #82] a lot in the studio, I know Audio Kitchen's sound and attention to detail well. When I heard about The Big Trees, I had to get a hold of one. Principally, it's a 2.5 W guitar amplifier in a pedal form factor. It has two outputs: one speaker level and one instrument/line level. The speaker output is specified as "8 ohms(ish)," but Steve Crow at Audio Kitchen assured me that you can connect it to any impedance cabinet: "It will get a little hotter at 2 ohms, but it should be fine."
Using the instrument output, The Big Trees functions similarly to other guitar pedals - the footswitch selecting between overdrive and clean channels. The Dirt channel features gain, Root (bass), Branch (treble), Dirt, and output controls. The Dirt control operates as a power-amp attenuator or "headroom" control, and you can then balance the output level with the output control. The sound of this channel ranges from cleanish, through bluesy breakup, into classic rock crunch. It's a very defined and dynamic sound, and if you dig in hard, you get more saturation and sustain - great for big power chords and leads - but a softer pick attack or rolling the guitar volume back cleans things up, and then it'll only crunch when you want it to. Even at its highest gain, there is great note definition, and even complex chords come out very clear; there is no way to get a bad sound out of The Big Trees. The Root and Branch controls work in such a way that there is always a general Audio Kitchen character happening, and you're really just nudging it one way or another.
Not to say that this is a one trick pony. If you cut the Root and boost the Branch, you get a great sharp funk tone that's never harsh or scratchy; and if you do the opposite, it doesn't sound muddy or "under a blanket" - it's just warm and gooey. Audio Kitchen has a very good idea about which areas their EQ needs to work in and where it doesn't - so the tone stack always feels right. The clean channel has only a level control, and in this mode, the signal ends up with a "discrete all-valve clean tone." In use as a pedal, this is the ultimate buffered bypass, but it also makes an excellent studio DI. The valve stage adds a sparkly gloss to anything that passes through it, and there's enough output to go straight into a line input. I wouldn't record a DI'ed bass without it.
As a guitar amp, its features and output may be basic, but its sound is detailed and huge, I have been running it into 4×12, 2×12, 1×12, and even 1×18 cabinets with great success. At 2.5 W of output, more conservative settings will yield good clean tones, and you can push it up through touch-sensitive crunch, up to a solid crunchy rhythm or rock lead tone. It's also a superb bass amp through my Selmer Goliath 1×18 - the combination providing a great round bottom without having to crank the Root knob unnaturally.
I (and more famous users like Gil Norton and Alan Moulder) have also had great success using it as an outboard processor. It's perfect for warming up plug-in synths or as a parallel distortion box for drums. I used it on the lead vocal for a doom metal album I mixed, after I'd already done some songs using the Thermionic Culture Vulture [Tape Op #45]. With the Vulture, I'd been running an EQ before and after it so I could push certain frequencies into distortion and pull out others that were getting harsh, then following that with an Empirical Labs FATSO Jr. [#24] to tame the crispy top end. The first song I used The Big Trees on - The Big Trees was all I needed. No pre and post-EQ, and no FATSO required. The Big Trees has the fuzz with none of the fuss!
For a guitar pedal, the price is on the high side, but I think in each of its alternate guises alone, it's more than worth the money. It's as good a recording amp as you could hope to find in terms of tone, if not features, and it offers the same clarity and refinement of its bigger brother the Little Chopper, which is twice the price. It's also cheaper than one channel of Thermionic Culture Vulture. And yet, you get all of these things in one compact box, plus that sweet DI. It's like a Swiss Army knife. I think once you work out everything it does, you could find yourself using it, as I do, almost every single day.
£600 GBP; www.audiokitchen.co.uk
Al Lawson is at firstname.lastname@example.org