This rackmount preamp from Hilbish Design is based on the circuitry of Sunn Beta Bass and Lead amps. When I ordered my PB-10 Beta, my original intent was to use it with bass and guitar. But once I had it in my studio, I discovered that it's an ideal tool for adding tone, color, weight, and character to other instruments and sounds too.

Hilbish Design is a small company from Lynchburg, VA, run by Nathan Hilbish and his wife Ashley. Everything is hand-built by Nathan, and parts are sourced locally when possible. When I received the PB-10, I was immediately struck by the weight and feel of it. It's solid and durable, and the controls are clearly presented. Obviously, it was designed and built with care, and without compromise for quality. The aforementioned Sunn Beta Lead amp is most famously in use by King Buzzo of the Melvins, and it's been a part of his signature sound for much of his recording and touring career. Over the years, Sunn preamps have become harder to come by and are often in need of repair due to aging components. In fact, since Nathan released his PB-10, King Buzzo has made the switch to Hilbish for his stage rig!

The PB-10 has two channels — labeled A and B — each with its own pots for Drive, Bass, Mid, Treble, and Level. In addition, there's a Master Volume knob that feeds the master output, which is accessible via 1/4'' jacks in front and back of the unit. Channel inputs are available on three front-only 1/4'' instrument jacks — one each for A and B, and one that feeds both A and B. A custom footswitch (included) assigns A, B, or the A+B mix to the master output. Each channel also has its own effects loop, with 1/4'' send and return jacks in front and back. Needless to say, the routing capabilities are extremely flexible when using the PB-10 with instrument amps or with the gear in your control room. For example, you can use it with a power amp (à la King Buzzo), or to front load a tube amp, or even as an insert effect with your DAW (utilizing stompbox-interfacing or re-amping devices).

For my initial testing, I fed the PB-10 into my solid-state Traynor Group One head, choosing a ‘74 Rickenbacker 4001 bass and a Traynor YBA 2×15 cab. For guitar, I switched to a ‘73 Guild S-100 and a ‘68 Marshall 4×12. The first thing I noticed was how consistent the tone remained from string to string. I began twisting knobs and immediately cranked up the gain (how could I not?), finding a distinct tipping point between beautifully overdriven and absolutely crushing. With both channels active — one quite distorted/rumbly, and the other on the cleaner/brighter side — the PB-10 produced one of my favorite sounds. Blending the two together was perfect because I was able to hear just enough attack from my instrument, yet all of the great qualities of heavy distortion and sustain were still retained. It also sounded great when I backed off the PB-10's Drive and turned up its Level fairly high to overdrive the Master Volume.

I had loads of fun front-loading tube amps with the PB-10, like my ‘69 Traynor YBA-1, ‘66 Vox AC50, and ‘69 Laney Supergroup amps. The signature tones and behaviors of these amps remained intact, but with the lovely addition of the PB-10. A favorite pairing was the PB-10 into the AC50. The headroom, clarity, and low end are outstanding on the Vox, which allowed the Hilbish to function with a little more transparency than it did with the other amps. I'm a bit of a pedal addict, and I found this preamp to exhibit enough uniqueness to stand out from anything I own. There's absolutely no concern for a lack of low end, even with the most extreme distortion settings. And with the channel switching feature, there are almost too many options. (Not a bad thing!)

During a recent session, my client came in with bass lines he had recorded at home, using just a DI box with the aim of re-amping his tracks in my studio. We stacked up a pile of heads and two cabinets, allowing us to switch things up from song to song. The PB-10 ended up on most tracks when we needed to sculpt the tone or add some grit. My client and I both found it to be an asset on his recording.

Thoroughly impressed with using the Hilbish in its intended role, I decided to bring it into my control room for a forthcoming mix session. Because it has 19'' rack ears (3RU high), I was able to drop it into a rack and patch it in with ease. I was working with a band called Young Tricksters from Amherst, MA. Their songs tend to be long and quite dense, so I knew I needed to pull some tricks in the mix to get all of the elements sitting together.

One of the struggles of this project all along was getting the bass to hold its own during playback. Most of these songs were a labyrinth of guitar tracks, very large drums (26'' kick drum) played in a very large room, strings, piano, and very dense vocal arrangements. When all of these things started stacking up, sometimes the bass would get a bit squashed even though I was using and abusing my high-pass filters! In the past, when situations like this arose, I usually reached for one of my old ‘70s Electro-Harmonix Hot Tubes pedals to help give the bass some width and mass in the mix by blending the original recorded signal with the signal processed through the pedal. But this time, I used the PB-10 instead.

Because of its versatile tone control, I was able to sculpt the bass sound in a way that widened the lows and extended the top, so I was able to achieve amazing amounts of openness and attack. For those big, heavy, crushing moments at song endings, when there are one too many guitar tracks, I could simply switch to the other channel, which was set with more gain and lows, and the bass sat there perfectly clear and massively heavy! The bass player asked me to use the PB-10 along with his original tone for all of the tracks we mixed, which says a lot about this unit.

I also ran drum channels through the PB-10 for a breakdown in one song, and was impressed by the thickness I was able to dial in to the blend of drum mics. Distorted vocals? No problem! With the PB-10, you can go for clarity with some edge, or all-out fuzzed vocal treatments.

After spending about two weeks with the PB-10, I realized that it had become an absolute asset to my workflow — whether for tracking/reamping bass and guitar, or for use as a mixing tool. We all love getting new toys for our studios, and it's ideal when these toys become tools that are integrated into our everyday workflow. The Hilbish Design PB-10 is all of that. You can get your new gear fix with it, while acquiring a means to add unique textures to your recordings. When brought into a mix situation, it proved to be an amazing box for heightening character. It solved problems as well as provided our mixes with really cool sounds we would have struggled to obtain with a plug-in. Whether you're a bass or guitar player looking for a new box for color and distortion, or a producer looking to add a new secret weapon to your collection, the Hilbish Design PB-10 is an excellent investment at a surprisingly reasonable price. If you're an engineer like me who prefers using pedals and re-amping over plug-ins, you will absolutely dig this box.

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

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