For years, pedalmakers have been trying to capitalize on the sound of a cranked valve amp, leading to many different tricks employed by engineers to make their pedals sound more tube-like. Whether it be asymmetrical diode clipping, op-amp overdrive, transistor breakup, or anything in between, most can agree that nothing sounds as good as a real tube. So, naturally, builders thought to start putting tubes into their pedals. It was a bit of a rocky start, but today the tube pedal has flourished, opening up the market to all matter of glassy wonder. Today’s pedal is from Dave Turbino of RePro Audio, an Italian company. Italy is quickly becoming a hotspot of aspiring tone entrepreneurs, with Gurus Amps, Brunetti Amplification, and many others. The Valve Age is a somewhat back-to-basics approach to tube tone, serving up raw and unrefined sound that really exploits every facet of tube saturation. Does it succeed in its quest to give guitar players what they’re craving? Let’s find out.
A TIME FOR VALVES
On the front, the Valve Age may be a little confusing, but in practice it is relatively straightforward. You have standard Volume, Tone, and Gain (labeled “Tube”) knobs, with the addition of a Bias control, and a selectable S-Wave switch, with a knob to go with it. The switch essentially selects clipping; upwards cuts off the “troughs” of the sound wave, leaving a brighter and more trebly tone. Downwards lets both the troughs and the peaks of the waves through, creating a more robust and even sound. The Bias control either lowers or raises the amount of current going through the pedal, so you can get starved plate or full-blown preamp distortion tones. The Bias control doesn’t impart a whole lot of change to the sound, but my ear tended to gravitate towards cranking it all the way for less of a starved tone.
SPITTY SHADES OF GRAY
Most of the distortion characteristic is shaped by the S-Wave control, which, according to Mr. Turbino, shapes the first distortion stage of the pedal. Introducing more S-Wave will make the gain more aggressive and biting, while cranking the gain or volume while backing off on the S-Wave will create a lower-gain chunk with more bottom end heft. The sound of the pedal is very unrefined and raw; the upper harmonics are bright and the midrange is very gamey and unkempt. I tried taming the splitting high-end transients with the Tone control, but the high-end rolloff only worked within a very small percentage of the pot—I almost had it all the way down. After fiddling for a few minutes, I found the sweet spot. With the Bias around 2 o’clock, the Gain and Volume almost cranked, and the Tone at around 9 o’clock, I was able to really dig in and discover the sounds of the tube. It was more touch sensitive and reined back, but it still had a lot of fire in it. With just a couple of changes in pick attack, I was able to go from subtle meaty throngs to wilder and more unpredictable lead tones, tinged with that characteristic tube character, response, and feel. It bounced back and reacted to my playing beautifully, accentuating the different shades of pressure I put into each strum with hollow focus.
For this review I reached into the coffers and ordered a few different tubes to try out with the Valve Age. To my complete surprise, the response of the pedal changed dramatically with each different tube. With a Mullard 12AU7, the Bias control seemed to have much more of an effect on the tone, cutting or boosting certain parts of the frequency as I increased the pot. The Gain and Volume controls were much more sensitive, and didn’t require me to crank them as much to get the edge-of-breakup saturation I wanted. With an NOS RCA 12AX7, the sound was harsher and squeakier than with the stock JJ 12AX7. My favorite was the stock by far, even though it was the hardest to tame, because of its warmer midrange response and generally more balanced tone.
The Valve Age is a great pedal. It’s got a very raw and stripped-back tube character, but in my opinion it needs some tweaking before ascending into greatness. Firstly, tweak the Tone control to make it more usable for high-end rolloff. Secondly, refine the lows and the mids to be more rounded and warm, with more punch and size. Thirdly, make it play nicer with different types of tubes; it didn’t particularly like anything I threw at it other than the stock tube, and refining the voicing of the circuit to better accept different tubes at different gain levels could make this a truly great tube distortion.
WHAT WE LIKE:
Raw and uncut tube character. Brash and dynamic with midrange gaminess and high end muscle. Great sweet spot with excellent tube response.
A little too unrefined, hard to dial in good settings. Tone control has small useable spectrum, doesn’t respond very well to tube rolling.