One Amp Fit to Rule
Most guitar players in 2015 are after a portable, no-frills, touch sensitive tube amp that has everything they need for the studio, stage and at home. They want the amp to have both clean and crunch tones to die for and most would prefer to get lead tones or filth from their pedals. The amp needs to be a great platform for boosts, overdrives and fuzz as well. There are some who only like amp breakup and require an effects loop to patch in modulation and delays. Others are of the opinion that an onboard effects loop and built-in reverb dilute the precious signal flow and would prefer an amp without the extra circuit tributaries. Then, there is the British and American tone conundrum that forces guitarists to buy a separate horse for each course. Though there are all these player types to consider, all guitar players want to be in the tube-cooking sweet spot at all volume levels.
Most amp companies would have an exhaustive range of products to tick all the aforementioned boxes. Or, produce a convoluted master-of-none that coughs up sterile thin cleans and choked, fizzy globs of gain. Most amp companies don’t want to give you everything you want in one, robust attractive package, because they want to move more units for profit over product. Well, Victory isn’t most amp companies. Their amp guru Martin Kidd brazenly created a portable, beautiful head that runs on EL-34s or 6L6s. It sports a minimal-yet-versatile tone stack, has both hard-bypassable reverb and effects loop, a mid kick switch for throatier leads and dual voices that go from clean American scoop, to Brit-crunch at the flick of a switch. To top it all off, The Duchess can run on high (40 watts) and low power (seven watts) and one can disengage either power tube for single-ended soft bottom bloom. Of course none of this would mean a thing if it didn’t sing, and the Duchess’s voice has range, depth and clarity to spare.
A Class Act in Cream and Black
There have already been a few bang-on reviews of The Duchess and most detail the experience through the matching compact 1x12 loaded with a Celestion G12M-65 Creamback. While I love (and own) the compact 1x12, I had just ordered myself a closed back 4x12 custom loaded with the same Creambacks. I have to mention that Victory cabs are robust, over-engineered boutique beauties with redwood pine tops and sides for victorious vibrations and Baltic birch ply for the backs and baffles. The baffles are angled up 12 degrees, but the cab retains the depth of a full-size straight for a beast-of-both-worlds wallop. It was gig night when both the head and cab arrived, so I threw caution to the wind and decided to play with a completely new rig. Being the weirdo that I am, I brought my matching Duesenberg Fullerton TV and Crowther Hotcake for a full-on cream-and-black attack—right down to the Creambacks in the 4x12.
The first thing I noticed in high-power with all the dials at midnight was that voice one has tons of headroom. My bridge humbucker didn’t really crunch up until the preamp volume was almost dimed. It sounded tight, with swirling harmonics on complex chords and reminded me of a cross between a Hiwatt and a Fender Twin. As beautiful as this sounded (with a touch of wow, flutter and slapback from my El Capistan in the loop), the gig called for a bit more drive. I flicked over to voice two, engaged the mid kick, and was treated to just the right amount of British grind. When the Hotcake took over from there, it sent the amp into harmonic feedback heaven—similar to Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes-era flutey fury. Brilliant.
What we like: The beauty of The Duchess is the simplicity of control married with the versatility and even limitability of the circuit. The character-rich reverb sounds like a plate-spring hybrid that is equal parts splash and subtle. Those that don’t need it or the effects loop can take both out of the signal path with the bypass buttons on the back. Martin Kidd has a real dog’s ear for tone stack tuning and part of his amps’ magic lies in the interactive sweeps of his treble, middle and bass controls. They always have a richness to them that is part of his sonic signature. I also have to mention that I can’t stop smelling this amp. When the tubes start heating up that fresh creamy paint, it smells intoxicatingly delish. It may sound trite, but the violet pilot light also pleases me immensely.
Concerns: Right, so the big question is, which is the better amp—The Duchess or The Countess? Here is my rundown. If you like to get most of your gain from the amp and need enough on tap for more aggressive styles—The Countess. If you want a touch sensitive clean-to-crunch machine, with a softer vintage tone that eats pedals like candy, The Duchess is your lady. It is almost like comparing a Soldano Hot Rod to a Marshall JTM-45. My advice? Buy both and run them in stereo.