When I think of the ‘classic Fender amp sound’ I straight away think of the 1960s Twin Reverb, or maybe its little brother the Deluxe Reverb. These two hugely popular valve amplifiers, sometimes referred to as the Blackface series for their black front panels, have been the go-to amps for many famous musicians and have featured on countless recordings.
Known for its clean headroom the original Twin Reverb is an 85-watt tube, two-speaker combo amp, while the Deluxe Reverb is a 22W tube, single-speaker combo. Both lookalike amps used mostly the same circuitry. Fender have continued selling these two models as ‘vintage ’65 re-issues’ for decades and they remain hugely popular.
For the last five years, I’ve alternated between the two Fender tube amps that I own, a ’65 Twin Reverb for louder gigs and a 15W Blues Jnr for all my other gigs.
Aside from how the Blackface tube amps sound, the second biggest talking point is commonly their excessive weight. My Twin Reverb weighs in at 29kg, while the Deluxe Reverb model is still a muscular handful at 19kg. I often feel rather bad if a friend or family member offers to help carry my Twin. I usually try to talk them out of it so they don’t go putting their back out. A trolley is essential!
All of which is just to background my enthusiasm at being offered the chance to review one of Fender’s new Tone Master digital amps, a series designed (presumably) to replicate the much-loved aspects of those tried and true valve combos while overcoming their physio-related issues.
With their new Tone Master series, Fender have indeed recreated these two classic tube amps using digital processing power to model the same circuitry, at the same time virtually halving the overall weight.
When I first picked up the Tone Master Deluxe Reverb (I’ll refer to it as TMDR) it was still in its box, but even so I was shocked at how light it was – a mere 10.4kg unpacked – with a recommended price tag of $1995. The bigger Twin Reverb (TMTR) weighs in at 15kg and $2399 rrp.
Both amps look and even feel almost identical to the original tube versions, aside from the addition of a Tone Master badge on the bottom right. More noteworthy new features include a power attenuator at the back, with settings from 0.2, 0.5, 1, 5, 12, 22 watts for the TMDR (and 1, 5, 12, 22, 40, 85W for the TMTR).
This feature provides for a lot of versatility, for example enabling the amps to be set at a low wattage output for bedroom practices then the full wattage impact for gigging. Tube amps usually start sounding their best when pushed into higher volumes, and one criticism of the original Blackface amps is that they both only function at the one max wattage, which doesn’t make them ideal for small room or bedroom situations.
The second new feature on these new Tone Master amps is a balanced XLR output with impulse response cabinet simulation, also at the back. There are three settings available here – flat no simulation, dynamic mic cabinet simulation and a ribbon mic cabinet simulation. A bit frustratingly though there aren’t any extension speaker options for either.
Both feature a standard on/off switch as well as a mute on/off which allows you to mute the speaker while still maintaining the XLR output signal. This could be used for a recording situation at home if you are needing to keep the volume to a minimum.
I had the opportunity of spending a week playing guitar through the Tone Master Deluxe Reverb. I tried it in rehearsals, my bedroom and in a gigging situation where it was used for a Wurlitzer. I was hugely impressed with the overall sound of the digital amp.
Sitting down to a direct comparison with my two Fender tube amps the TMDR really held its own. I ended up playing it for quite a lot longer than I’d expected and admit it ended up being the most fun I’ve had on a solid-state amp.
The amp has a very full sound with quite a lot of bass available. It can also brighten up nicely with that sparkly Fender top end. I had a turn adjusting the power attenuator at the rear and found a sweet spot for my bedroom size on the 0.5 watts setting. At this setting, I could push the volume up to 8 and start to get some overdrive happening, all while maintaining an overall volume that didn’t blast everyone else at home.
The reverb, which both the original Deluxe Reverb and Twin Reverb tube amps are well known for also sounded very warm and full on the TMDR. Instead of using a spring reverb tank Fender have opted for a digital reverb, a choice I’m guessing made in trying to keep the weight down.
The tremolo on the TMDR also sounds incredibly similar to the tremolo on my ’65 Twin Reverb, just ever so slightly more rounded sounding perhaps. The only very subtle difference I picked out with the sound of the TMDR was when playing the high frets on the B and E strings. The attack and dynamic level of those high notes took some time to adjust to. However, this was only a very minor difference that I feel wouldn’t bother most people.
With that in mind, who is this $1995 amp aimed at? Without doubt, the Tone Master Deluxe Reverb would be a great option for guitarists wanting something that looks classic and familiar, is very simple to use, readily portable and low maintenance (no paying to replace worn-out tubes), all while maintaining a high-quality Fender sound.
The two additional digital features – power attenuation and the XLR output impulse response simulation help make this amp conveniently versatile, whether you’re wanting to practice in your bedroom or go full volume on stage. Placing both these new features at the back of the amp helps keep the overall design simple and uncluttered, something digital modelling amps are not always known for.
Personally, I rate this as the best tubeless modelling amp I’ve played so far and honestly feel most people probably wouldn’t be able to pick a tonal difference between the TMDR and its original tube model. I definitely suggest heading to your local music store and conducting your own blindfold test.
Having said all that, I’ll still be sticking with my two Fender tube amps until the day my back finally says enough is enough!