Review #2 - Shift Line Twin MKII (Blackface) > Catalinbread Topanga Spring Reverb > Carvin Mach 100 > JBL K120
If you read my first review on the Mad Professor Super Black, you were witness to a certain excitement and enthusiasm that can only be captured when somebody discovers something new for the first time. Before Jon started this thread, I was not aware, nor honestly even very curious about the concept of using a preamp in pedal form, or even the overarching principle of replacing your entire amplifier with a small set of pedals. Fast forward two weeks and I have become borderline obsessed with both ideas. I guess it is the concept of simplification that appeals to my sensibilities - cutting waste, trimming down and becoming as efficient as possible is a very Zen like process; especially in the middle of a Wisconsin winter, in a house where a father’s only respite is to slip away to the basement, grab a guitar, jam out and “turn it up.”
That being said, don’t be surprised if all of my reviews on this thread turn out to be positive, because the fact is that all of the products that I am reviewing have been recommended by heads on this forum and thus have already passed the muster in one way or another. I am simply an enthusiastic newcomer who likes to write and share information … so it goes…
(BTW - If you don’t like to read, I apologize in advance
Please remember that all reviews are subjective and you may not have the experience as I have had, if, for example, you make the choice to purchase this pedal. (In the end, if you don’t like it you can always sell it)
… And so, while I will be making an effort in this review to scale back the “newby” rhetoric and sweeping praise of the Shift Line Twin in favor of a more objective and fairweather approach, let it be known that my personal opinion on this pedal is grand. In fact, I believe that it belongs in the arsenal of every Jerry Tone Seeker, and will go down as one of the essential pieces of gear for those of us engaged in the foolishness of attempting to capture the essence of a fleeting moment in time from the days of yesteryear. And while the Shift Line Twin may be in a similar league sonically, as the Sarno SMS and the FYD TRP, the only thing that would make this pedal better is if it were hand built in the USA. In that regard, it will never be able compete with the fore mentioned legends of Jerry Tone lore.
Just to be clear, this review is for the MKII, which is not the newest version of this preamp. The newest version is the MKIIIS and includes added features such as an extra gain knob and IR capabilities. In addition, the version that I have says "Blackface" on it in the lower left hand corner. I believe there are both Blackface and Sliverface versions (black & blue respectively), although I'm not completely clear on that. Shift Line keeps their website updated with info on the latest versions of their products, but there is actually not a lot of info available for the older models. The Shift Line Twin is designed and built in Russia and features and is driven by a single 12AX7 tube.
For the past couple of days I've had the pleasure of messing around with the Shift Line MKII Twin Preamp. I had the privilege of acquiring this fine piece of gear used and for a decent price, from someone obviously far wiser than myself. The MKII seems to be going for around $250, while the MKIIIS is up around $450. The Shift Line is essentially a tube driven Fender Twin Reverb Preamp in the format of a small pedal. If you don’t think it is possible to capture the sparkling cleans, the enormous headroom, or the beautiful edge of breakup drive tones of this legendary amplifier in a small box (the size of an index card), think again. As skeptical as I was, this little box has surpassed my expectations and forced me to reconsider what I thought was possible. The strength of the Shift Line is in its sonic goodness and faithful recreation of the Twin sound, but it does have some quirks that some would consider drawbacks, if not simply minor inconveniences. So, without further ado, here’s the good, bad and the … well there’s really no ugly here:
The first thing I noticed when I plugged in the Shift Line is that the power adapter is a large wall wart. It will take up lots of space on a power strip and will weigh down any portable rig just a bit. The next thing that I noticed after I stepped on the Carvin Mach 100, was the lack of LED to indicate that the Shift Line is powered up. My excitement to try the pedal was immediately tempered by the need to crouch down and engage in an “is thing on” inspection. Fortunately, by peering through the vents on the front of the unit I could make out the blue glow of the tube and I knew that the unit was receiving power. Upon further inspection I realized that there was no mechanism by which to turn the unit on/off. As great as this pedal is, I still can’t figure out why they would design it without on/off capabilities. Essentially, when you are done with the pedal you need to unplug the power cable from the pedal, or shut off power to the whole board to give the tube a rest. If you choose to leave it on, the pedal heats up pretty good and while this is great for tone, the only drawback is that I became nervous about the longevity of the tube and somewhat anxious about accidentally letting this thing sit “hot” for more than several hours at a time. Perhaps there is some kind of advantage to this design and if there is please chime in and let us know what it is. While I was down on the floor I made sure the bright switch was on and the cab sim was off. I put all other settings to noon, except the gain which I turned to about 7-8 o clock.
When I stood up and strummed my first chord, I couldn’t help but smile. The sound, the tone, was already there without any tweaking. In fact, the more I tweaked the knobs, the more I realized that this thing sounds like a Twin at any and every setting. Unlike the Super Black, which can emulate different Blackface amps at different settings, this thing is genuinely Twin. You just need to decide which flavor of Twin you want, but no matter how you set it, you will get that familiar crystal clean, super bright, yet somehow slightly edgy tone. I admit that I am not great at describing tone, but after about a month of playing the FYD through a pair of JBLs, for at least a couple of hours every day, I have become familiar with the so called Twin sound. The Shift Line brings the flavor and it brings it well.
The pedal packs tons of headroom. Even with the gain knob up at noon you will be looking at crystal clean sparkling notes. Its not until you get the gain over past 3 o clock that you begin to get the sweet edge of breakup lead tones that the Twin is known for. After some tweaking I was able to dial in a sweet spot between the master and gain to where I could get a good rhythm tone with just a little bit of bite and then stomp on a clean boost and get the edge of breakup goodness for sparkling edgy lead tones. The treble, middle and bass do not need to be set to “Jerry” settings to get the Jerry tone with this pedal. I found that cutting the bass was more effective than boosting the treble. Boosting the treble thinned out the tone a bit to the point where some of the magic got lost for me. The settings I ended up going with were treble between 1-2 o clock, middle 11 o clock and bass at 8 o clock. I put the gain at about 2 o clock and used the master to adjust whatever volume I was comfortable with.
Like I mentioned earlier, using a clean boost produced wonderful sparkling lead tones that only a Twin Reverb can deliver. But the real magic occurred when I hit the Shift Line with overdrive. This is where it really stood out from the Super Black and where the tube was really able to wash over the tone. Stepping on my vintage MXR Distortion + instantly transported me to late 70s Garcia - thick (relatively) and lush lead tones that sparkle then decay with just a touch of edginess that screams “rock n roll.” Cornell anybody? The Sweet Baby from Joyo also produced some perfectly creamy Jerry tones when placed in front of the Shift Line. The Sweet Baby is such an incredibly great pedal, I am blown away by how good it sounds for $30. It is a clone of the Mad Professor Sweet Honey Overdrive and man does it deliver! Bottom line, with the Shift Line as the foundation, any overdrive will give you deep and lush and sparkling lead tones that sparkle and decay. You can get the tone as thick or thin as you want by adjusting the treble and bass on the Shift Line and you can make the lead scream by boosting the middle tone knob. The tone has a tube quality to it, that in my opinion, is tough to replicate without a hot piece of glass.
Like with the Super Black, you will need to run a reverb pedal after the Shift Line and before the power amp pedal to fully recreate the amp. Since I have committed myself to this endeavor, I decided to branch out and give another reverb pedal a try. This time I put the Catalinbread Topanga on the board and dialed in a setting that I thought sounded good. I had heard a lot of great hype about the Topanga and was eager to see what it could do. It does not disappoint. I can see why this is considered to be the king of Spring Reverbs. In no way am I utilizing all that it is capable of, but I think the secret to this pedal are the volume and tone knobs, which you don’t usually see on reverb pedals. Those adjustments allowed me to fine tune the reverb to match the tones coming out of Shift Line. The Topanga adds a perfect amount of sparkle and shine, with just a touch of depth that is very tasteful. I couldn’t help but to make the tone a little bit more “wet” than I usually have it because the reverb sounded so good.
The Shift Line has an FX loop and although I am not completely clear on how it works, I found a way to utilize it that is both convenient and useful. I hooked up my Ernie Ball MVP Volume pedal to the FX loop. This essentially but the volume pedal after the overdrive and before the reverb and allowed me to raise and lower the volume of the preamp with my foot (cool!!). One great thing about the MVP is, not only can you set the “heel” setting to unity gain, but then you can add gain or “boost” to the “toe” setting. This allowed me to use my foot to adjust the perfect level that I was looking for from the Shift Line - background rhythm, lead rhythm, or full blown lead tones all became adjustable by simply rocking my foot heel to toe. I could also adjust the level of the overdrive without effecting its tonal characteristics because it was placed after the overdrive. In this way the volume pedal was being used in a way similar to an OBEL. This could be a useful set up for getting the most out of a MuTron, although I admittedly have not tried it with my Microtron yet.
Finally, the Carvin Mach 100 did not disappoint. It sounded great to my ears at all volume levels, although I just set it to noon and adjusted the master on the Shift Line to raise and lower the volume. The set up was plenty loud and I should probably dial it back a bit since all this playing has my ears a bit unnerved (not good!!!).
The Shift Line is a keeper in my book. It will not be leaving my board and I will not be selling mine. It is not as small or compact with the 2 in 1 capabilities of the Super Black, but I don’t mind expanding my board a bit in return for the lushness of the tube. Maybe not as versatile as some of the other options in this thread (does not have a second channel or overdrive), but it does what it is supposed to do very well. If you can find one at a good price I wouldn’t hesitate to scoop it up. I know it is a bit pricey for some heads, but it still is less expensive than the SMS or FYD options. It does have some minor inconveniences that some may find annoying (I know that I do), but if you are willing to overlook them, the Shift Line will deliver sonically. And so, let me close by saying this, if what you want is Twin goodness and you want it to fit on your pedal board, look no further than the Shift Line Twin Tube Preamplifier. I think you may be surprised, in a good way! I know I was