By now, most of us have seen the products made by Zachary Vex of the Z.Vex Company. Z.Vex pedals are incredibly cool in both design and function. Every time I go to the good music store here in Tucson, I go look at what new boutique pedals have come out. Since I already own an Ooh Wah, I am acquainted with the type of musical magic and inspiration a Z.Vex pedal can bring to a session, Enter the latest gadget form Z.Vex-the Nano Head!! This is not some rehashed stomp box with some tubes thrown in for show. In fact, upon first view, it looks much like a tube preamp. But don't hook it up in line with your amp unless you want to blow something up! No, this is a serious studio tone tool for those who crave a truly distinctive guitar sound on their tracks. It is actually a miniature tube amplifier with a 1" speaker built in and a standard 1/4" speaker output that will drive any 8 or 16 ohm speaker. I was skeptical at first, but the guitar geeks at the music store were more than willing to prove to me that this works by hooking it up to a 4x12 cabinet in their demo room. I was sold within the first chord I heard coming out of the guitar.
At 1/2 a watt, this little head has got an amazing amount of volume and the tonal combinations are as broad as your ability to knob twiddle. The main controls are located on the side as the top of the box has the exposed sub miniature military tubes (Philips JAN 6021W), the transformer, and the high-voltage capacitors which are wisely protected by four parallel roll bars. The operating side has, from left to right, a three-position low-pass switch, a three-position high-pass switch, the volume knob, a two-position brightness switch, power LED, and 1/4" input. There is even a miniature cooling fan on the back side to keep the amp from overheating. All markings are indicated by hand-painted graphical illustrations by the appropriate switches. The low-pass switch, for example, has the sun (bright) and two different cumulus clouds (dark and darker?) to indicate its function. The high-pass switch has three stick figures with a normal man, a skinny man, and a fat man as the icons here. The bright control is represented by a half of a sun and a full sun. Between these switches and the volume knob, the range of tone goes from a respectable bluesy clean to an almost Marshall stack overdriven sound.
Z.Vex includes a typed instruction sheet that explains the theory behind recording with low-powered amps, which in of itself is an informative read. I've always been a huge proponent of small tube amps in the studio for guitars as the tonal possibilities are more varied and they are more controllable. Zachary explains in the instructions how high- powered amps running at loud volumes introduce many unwanted problems into the recording chain, including actual changes (and damage!) to the mic element itself. By building a 1/2 watt amp, he has made possible all of the tonal variations of a high-powered tube amp without all the volume. You can actually dial up a great sound and not be deaf as a result. What is more, the tone you hear translates much more accurately in the recording and playback sounds like the source. The only downside: it's so much fun to play with, you have to force yourself to stop twiddling and get recording because every variation of volume level to switch position creates such cool sound, you can forget what tone you set out to get in the first place.
Like all Z.Vex pedals, the Nano Head is not cheap. Nor should it be. This, like all of his devices, is handmade and hand-painted and is worth the money for looks and novelty alone. Don't be fooled by that, however, as its value as a serious recording tool is worth way more than its price tag. Not to mention, it travels well and you will never hurt your back lugging it around.
($425 street; www.zvexamps.com)