Imagine you’re reading Tone Report on your phone while driving (please don’t do this). You’re getting seriously engrossed in an article about the best Japanese wahs for surf-rock and you collide into the back of a limo, causing it to rear-end into a police car, causing that to skid into a bank. You look up from the wreckage, no one is injured, but all are now standing around staring at you. The feeling you are now experiencing is best described as, “Holy Big Muffs, this is going to be expensive.” That emotion, complete with adrenaline spike as if by automobile impact, was mostly my experience testing out the Darkglass Electronics Vintage Ultra Preamp. After a few minutes, you know this is gonna be expensive. But just like the public menace you’ve become goofing around on your phone behind the wheel, it feels justified. High end, boutique effects are somewhat controversial, and the argument invariably becomes if they’re worth it or not. I would say, if you are looking for a preamp that sounds like a tube amp, this thing is probably worth it.
The layout of the vintage ultra is pretty intuitive, and if you’ve used a two-channel amp you’ll instantly know the setup. They did a good job labeling everything, and it was good that the stylish chromatic enclosure didn’t make reading them too difficult. The equalization section splits the mid-range frequencies into low and high, and allows you to toggle between what frequencies on which they’re centered. The midrange is the magic of any amplifier, and this preamp is no exception. One can drastically change the character of their instrument by just keeping the bass and treble flat and adjusting the low and mid frequencies, and this is what I found myself doing most.
An Attack switch allows you add a little snap to your initial attack—adjustable to how aggressive you’d like it to be—and a Grunt switch boosts certain low frequencies to give some heft to your sound. I loved the Attack switch in the middle position, which made my fingerstyle plucks sound almost like using a pick. When I switched to a pick, the ‘big studio recording’ pick sound was exactly what I heard. I basically set the Grunt toggle to boost as much as possible and left it, which added some very juicy woof to my tone without sounding too muddy. A Blend knob is also on board, so you can bring in some clean tone to naturalize any extreme settings you might desire.
The selectable distortion feels like activating a second channel of an amplifier, though it doesn’t have its own gain (called Drive) or Volume settings, which are the same when the distortion footswitch is not on. To get around the differences in perceived volume between clean and dirty, a Level knob is added that only applies to the distortion—an excellent touch. This lets you use the pedal as flexibly as possible, as either a standalone dirt box, a switchable preamp, or to drive your real tube amp.
Speaking of which, the distortion is reason enough to deserve special mention. It sounds excellent. It even felt excellent. There’s a certain subtlety to a good tube amp, where you can hear them compress a little and hear the faintest distortion on your notes when you’ve set the gain right. If you close your eyes, the Vintage Ultra feels just like that. Most overdrive pedals have their own character, and even ones that are supposed to sound like amps, actually have somewhat of their own particular sound (e.g.: the SansAmp line). However, this one really does sound like a tube amp, almost to the point that it’s a bit transparent. It sounded like more of my bass, or more of the amp it was plugged in to, if that makes sense. The only thing I think that might not please everyone is this lack of tonal coloration, which you might find with a pedal designed to specifically emulate an old Marshall or an Ampeg Portaflex or others. Several of these pedals designed from classic preamps will add a mark to your sound, though most don’t have the same kind of response. It’s hard to put into words, but if you try out the Vintage Ultra and have some experience with preamp pedals, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
What we liked:
Beautiful sounding equalization section. Intuitive, well labeled-controls. Overdrive that’s as “tube” as solid-state gets.
If you want a more colored sound, or are trying to emulate a particular amp, this one might be a bit too transparent for you.