Wade Goeke of Chandler Limited has built his business on the solid foundations of vintage audio circuits with modern enhancements in both manufacturing and audio character. Chandler mic preamps and compressors have become standard fare for rock and pop recording, and their guitar pedals are quickly becoming favorites among session guitarists and live performers. This year, Chandler introduced a guitar amp head which also utilizes tried-and-true amplifier building blocks with some unique twists. The GAV19T is a straightforward, 19 watt, all-tube amp head, which like all Chandler gear, is hand-wired and comes housed in a bold, but classic-looking enclosure. Chandler only recently began offering matching, custom-loaded 2x12 straight and slant-front cabinets, so I didn't have one for this review. In any case, the GAV19T will happily drive almost any cabinet you can throw at it, so feel free to plug it into your favorite.
The GAV19T relies on an ECC 803 preamp tube and two EL84s for the power section. This could lead you to think of a VOX- type amp, which would be the basic building block. The ECC 803 (like the 6V6 tube) provides a very focused but more "chimey" sound than the Fender-type sound that many boutique amps emulate today. You could call this more like a classic British rock tone than the American blues or modern British overdrive sounds (both of which typically use the 6L6- type tubes). One of the first things you may notice about the amp is that the control set does not look like a typical guitar amp's. You will see the familiar power and standby switches, and input jacks for high (lead) and normal (rhythm), but the five knobs, labeled Boost, Tone, Bass, Treble, Input and Bias, look deceptively simple. Chandler chose to control the preamp tube with a five-position Bias control, which varies the sustain and frequency response of the preamp section and gives you the overall character of the amplifier. There is also a Tone switch (not to be confused with the aforementioned Tone knob), with Normal and Intense settings, which affects the power section and changes the thickness of the amp's tone from a chunky rhythm-type sound to a more articulate lead- type character.
The key control element of this amp is the Drive portion, which encompasses the Boost and Tone knobs. It acts sort of like an overdrive circuit applied to the power tubes, which provides a very different color than a preamp overdrive would. I find this power-tube drive smoother and more saturated, versus a typical gritty/edgy overdrive from a boost pedal or preamp drive circuit. The Tone knob's four active positions steer the boost from Treble Boost to Thick (full-range), with Aggressive and Mid positions also available. The variable Boost knob dials in the amount of drive applied to the power tubes.
Chandler chose a Baxandall-type circuit for the EQ portion, with Bass and Treble knobs offering very smooth and wide curves, similar to the tone controls in hi-fi gear. In the past few years, Bax EQs have become popular in the pro audio world due to their gentle tone-shaping ability and natural sound. The GAV19T's Treble control produces an extremely open top-end boost, and the Bass control provides a punchy and focused low-mid bump. I found that I often ran the amp with one or both of these controls fully cranked.
My partner at my studio records mainly hard rock, and his setup includes a Marshall head, a Bassman head, a Marshall 4x12 cabinet, and a Palmer PDI-03 speaker simulator. When I subbed in the Chandler head, his first comment was, "Wow, this is so much smoother and analog-sounding for recording rock guitar digitally." To translate that, I think he was saying that the Chandler's drive and distortion had less grainy, biting top end than his other amps, but still had the balls and intensity that he liked.
Over time, I have used the GAV19T with a vintage Mesa Boogie 1x12 cabinet, a few different Marshall 4x12 cabs, and a newer VOX 1x12 cabinet. In all cases, the Chandler produced a thick, focused sound with plenty of power and volume. The character of the amp comes through even at very low levels, but its 19 watts will drive most cabinets as hard as you could want. In fact, I lent the amp to the artists Livan and Peter Murphy for a rock show at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles, where the GAV19T held its own on stage next to a couple different 100 watt heads. In a smaller club setting, the volume could easily be turned down to afford the house soundperson the opportunity to balance the amp against the band.
I also found the GAV19T to react well and very dynamically to different guitars, pickup/tone settings, and pedals. Very often, an amp's character will swamp out the subtle differences in guitar settings, but with this amp, I could dial in the amount of sustain, bite, or drive from the guitar and pedals, which added to the flavor of the amplifier's own settings. Everything about the amp feels controlled but effective. Cranking any knob to its extreme position never produces a tone that veers too far away from the general character of the amp, or gets out of control. Also, the rear panel of the amplifier provides speaker output for either an 8 ohm or 16 ohm load, so your speaker selection is not limited by impedance.
All in all, the GAV19T produces a voice of its own, and it deserves a place among the wide variety of high-end guitar amps available today. I think this amp will become a prized possession of many guitarists and studios. Matching 2x12 cabinets can be ordered from any Chandler Limited dealer.