Billy Zoom's Jet Set

A Vist to Zoom Studios - and a listen to the prototypes.

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Billy Zoom graciously opened his studio and top secret sonic laboratories to the GDP last Sunday night, and I have pics and audio samples of his new amps.

He had invited me to come by and see the gear, and since he'd also invited TV Jones – and Tom had wheels at the show and I was a hitchhiker – I begged a ride with the Joneses. So after the show closed last Sunday, and while Joe struggled with the logistical burden of packing up the Gretsch display, I helped carry out the last pieces of the TV Jones booth and we headed off into the balmy LA suburban night for some Mexican food. "We" included Tom, his wife Liz and her best friend Becky, TV's right- (and left-) hand girls Lindsey and Tauna, Jan from the Gretsch Foundation, Adam from Bigsby, and me.

Don't ask me where we were – I was riding, and LA is all a blur of light to me – but after supper, we drove a few blocks to Billy's studio.


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He opened up to the secret knock, and he and his manager Mike Rouse welcomed us into the control room. I thought it might be just possible you'd want to see what that looked like, so I used my bowtie camera to capture some spy shots.


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The mixer faces a wall to the right, with the window to the studio proper at the engineer's left shoulder. This arrangement (and the packing blankets hung overhead) minimize any trouble with standing waves reflecting off studio glass in a small room to confuse audio decisions.

Note the vintage iron in the racks, the range of compressors, and only one tool for making fiddly candy effects noises. A plate reverb is housed outside the control room.

But we weren't there to play with the studio...we were there to listen to amps. And that's coming right up.

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The Prototypes Part 1

You get to be a fly on the wall (not that there are flies in Mr. Zoom's studio, but if there WERE, you'd be one) as Billy and TV Jones put four amps, a hitherto-undisclosed effect unit, and a preamp to the test.

I recorded with the Edirol, generally by placing it on the floor 18" or so in front of the amp being tested, but it's also hand-held at times, and gets moved around. You'll hear some artifacts of that casual handling. There was no attempt to capture definitive audio samples – nor are Billy or Tom playing to impress. You're just in the room as some guys play with some amps, figuring out what noises they make, and that's what it will sound like.

The recorder's gain was set for the amps' how-you'd-use-them volume, so the conversations, happening at voice level 5 - 8 feet from the recorder, came out at much reduced level. Since I wanted y'all to HEAR the conversations, I've boosted the level during those parts as much as 60 dB to pull it out – which explains the changes in ambient noise in the recordings. It may sound edited together, but it's not – it's all here in just the order it happened. (And I give the Edirol credit: I was literally amplifying a flatline in Audacity during most of the conversations.)

So with no further ado, on with the show. The entire group filed into the studio from the control room.

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All four amps, and more, were arrayed about the place. The festivities started with "The Blue." .

Click to hear the "ZoomCraft" 18 Watt Blue Combo

Recording sequence:
• conversation: looking for a pick
• BZ plays the Tribute BZ Jet through the amp, twisting knobs to demo tonal range
• BZ and TV discuss features and technology of this amp (with some cool secrets...)
• conversation as TV sets up his solidbody test mule guitar (with interchangeable TV Jones pickup modules) for a run, then tunes the mule
• TV plays The Mule through the Blue 18 (and I didn't document which TV pups were in use)

Billy supplies the specs of the Blue Combo as follows:
• 18 watts RMS, class A
• 2-12AX7, 2-EL-84
• Two knobs: volume and tone; pull volume for deep tone
• Single tone knob pans between selected active peaking EQ points
• 1 - Jensen C12N speaker.
• dimensions: 18" x 18" x 9-1/2"



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Prototypes Part II: The 4-Watt Killer

And he ain't kiddin'.

This handsome little two-pound gold & bronze head sat atop an open-back cab with a pair of Greenbacks, wired for 16 ohms. (The amp works equally well at 8, sez Billy.)

Click to hear The Killer

Recording sequence:

• We're a little confused, because I didn't make careful enough narration, but it's probably Billy playing a few chords on the ZoomJet, then handing the guitar to Tom.
• techtalk about power and weight
• conversation: Lindsey offers to go to the van and get Tom's box of swappable pickups
• TV plays the Mule (I think) through The Killer. In my voice-over, I say both "single-coil" and "humbucker", so who knows. TV may remember. In any case, we're sure it's The Killer amp...

The Specs
• two tubes, 4 watts
• FET input
• Gain, Master, Treble, Bass
• direct out for recording or driving larger amp
• killer studio stack sound

I'll second that.

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Four watts? That clip is downright tantalizing. I'd love to hear more of that.

And more of "Mama Kin" too.

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Prototypes Part C is for Cowboy...

Click to hear 20-watt Cowboy

Recording sequence
• BZ plays ZoomJet through the Cowboy 20-watt 1-12 combo
• techtalk: discussion of pull-bright reverb control, and Tom & Billy discuss the Baxandall tone circuit

This amp is something of a tour de force of smart Zoomian amp technology, with enough specs to light up any circuit junkie:

Specs
• 20 watt, AB1
• 3-12AX7, 1-6BM8, 2-6V6 tubes
• Modified Baxandall active EQ
• Volume, Treble, Bass, Reverb, speed, depth
• Pull-bright on volume for amp signal
• Pull-bright on reverb for reverb only
• constant-current spring reverb drive
• variable-Q bias-type tremolo
• BZ Perfect Symmetry phase inverter
• 1 - Jensen C12N speaker

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Dude.! I'll try to forgive your blunder since you're from back east....but we are NOT part of L.A. This is Orange County, the third largest city in the country, and we do not associate ourselves with Los Angeles. True, this is where savy Los Angelinos come to shop, but we're eons and light-years from them culturally. BZ

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**This post has been deleted**
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Prototypes 4: ZoomCraft Cream 10/30

This is the amp Billy used during the NAMM gig, and, since it's the biggest and loudest – and includes power scaling – might be thought of as the flagship. It's also plenty packed with smart tube technology, as the specs will show. Cool box, and - as with all BZ's designs - more going on than meets the eye.

Click to hear the 10/30.

Recording sequence
• techtalk: BZ & TV discuss power-switching, active midrange circuit
• BZ plays the Zoom Jet
• techtalk: yes, master volume...
• TV plays the Mule w/Powertron & Supertron
• techtalk: about the More knob, tremolo specs, and cabinet materials

Specs
• 30 watts RMS or 10 watts RMS, AB1
• 4-12AX7, 1-12AT7, 2-5881 tubes
• Normal Channel: Volume 1 - 10, Treble, Mid, Bass, Reverb, Speed, Depth
• More Channel: Volume 11 - 20, Overdrive EQ; Normal volume acts as Master
• Wide-ranging active LC Mid-Control
• Variable-Q bias-type Tremolo
• 3-pos standby: down-10w, center-standby, up- 30w
• 1 - Celestion Vintage 30 speaker

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Huh huh. SoCal, OranCo, LA, it's all the same to us flatlanders. Blame it on television!

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WOW to all of the amps but especially that Cowboy amp

I know they are only prototypes but man. my credit card is twitching away like mad - damn, damn, damn

Cheers

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Those are some great sounding amps. Love the MORE knob.

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Gotta love Billy's sense of humor, great sounds.

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Great pictures! Ah, the infamous RCA BA-6 - one of my favorite compressors of all time!

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But wait! That's not all.

There are more toys in BZ's toybox.

Click to hear the Little Kahuna.

Which is what, exactly? An outboard Reverb-Tremolo, and a very smart idea - beautifully implemented here, to my ears. It's demo'ed here through one of the custom Bassman & 4-10 cabs Billy made in the mid-70s. He says

"I was building tweed Bassman type amps. Some were switchable for 50 or 100 watts and came with a 4-10” extension cabinet. We couldn’t get tweed in those days so most of my amps were brown Tolex.

I used that cabinet on most of the X records. They’re the cheap Jensen 10's. The Bassman has a multi-watt rotary switch on the back for 50 watts, 25 watts, 12 watts, 6 watts, or 3 watts."

Recording sequence:
• techtalk: switchable Bassman wattage
• BZ plays ZoomJet through the Bassman rig
• techtalk: tremolo wave shape changes with depth control

Kahuna specs
• 6BM8 Constant-current reverb drive
• 1-6BM8, 2-12AX7 tubes
• Drive and Depth knobs w/pull-for-Surf feature
• Variable-Q bias-type tremolo
• Speed and Depth controls
• Dimensions: 18-1/2" x 5-1/2" x 9-1/2"

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Thanks for the photos and clips. Wonderful amps!

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Hey there Proteus...must have been a fun few days.

I just let the fine folks @ Apple take full control of my machine to update all things QuickTime/iPod/Safari, and whereas before at least I got a QuickTime Player showing movement but no sound...now all I get is a little red x (no pun intended) in a box when I try to listen to your MP3's.

Any suggestions?

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Still there's more.

Before the festivities wound down (and we intrepid explorers moved on to visit the King Doublebass shop), Tom wanted another pass at the Little Killer, with different pickups in the Mule.

Click to kill.

Recording sequence
• BZ plays the ZoomJet through the 4-watter again
• techtalk: why Proteus talks to plastic boxes
• TV whips the Mule through the Killer

TV's swappable pickup demo kit:

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We had noticed a Randall head atop a cab along the left wall of the studio, and Tom asked Billy about it. Turns out it's a 300-watt solid-state amp, but it's front-ended by Billy's Übergain Rock Preamp. (Not it's real name.)

We had to try it too.

Click for more gain than you ought to hear at this site.

Recording sequence:
• TV on Mule through preamp & Randall
• Proteus on Mule through same rig (doing my best to ride some pretty hairy settings...)
• conversation about cowboy aesthetics and Billy's build process for the cowboy amp

Rock Preamp Specs
• Gain, Volume, Master, Treble, Mid, Bass
• Pull switches on everything
• Mucho-variable active EQ
• Output - plus 18dbm
• Can also drive speaker @ 3-1/2 watts
• Works well with any power amp, or into effects return of guitar amp

Some last pics from Billy's studio:

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twangmeister, I don't know. Sorry! I just never have trouble with QuickTime. Anyone else having trouble?

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And, in conclusion...

These amps are proof to me that BZ is a genuine amp design guru. I liked everything I heard, as soon as I heard it, and the more I heard everything the amps DID, the more impressed I became.

Other than far more gain than anyone needs in the Rock Preamp, I didn't hear any sounds from any of these amps that weren't musical and useful. They all sounded organically responsive, all were voiced not only very musically, but with tons of variability. BZ's sonic aesthetic clearly comes from several golden ages of guitar tone - but he's not a hidebound stickler for doing it the way it was done 'back in the day.'

That means intelligent evolution in tube amp design here, with clever hidden features that open up possibilities. Even the two-knob 18-watter covers all the sonic landscape you might need. (In fact, it may have been my personal favorite.)

Each amp has its distinctive character, and its range of uses, and they slot together into a line that just makes sense. Gotta say, kudos to Billy for this work.

In the van as we left, TV and I quizzed each other, kinda asking "did those amps sound as good as we think they did?" And we still thought they had.

Don't know what's coming in terms of getting these prototypes to market, but I'm holding off on my amp GAS till I find out.

The main thing? They just wouldn't make a BAD sound. And they're so ... natural-sounding, if an electric guitar/amp combo can be said to sound natural. They sound familiar, comfortable, classic. They just sounded RIGHT.

Good stuff, Billy.

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Working on iPhone.

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Thanks Tim,

Great reporting as usual.

Now, how am I gonna convince Holli that the Family NEEDS a BZ Cowboy?

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Proteus, you truly are an asset to the Gretsch company. These look and sound (through laptop speakers admittedly) fantastic. Big thanks to Billy Zoom for allowing the scoop!

The Little Kahuna sounds the business..

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What a modest Studio! I like to see that even the pro's sometimes don't feel the need to overdo it! I like the TV Jones swap guitar too. You can slide the pickups in and out I assume to try different tones in a flash? Pretty cool idea. Nice amps too!

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By the way guys, if you listen to the audio of the Billy Zoom and the Blue Moon Boy's set from the Kim Falcon stage at NAMM, that's the Zoomcraft Cream you're hearing. That amp is SOLID and is reasonably heavy.


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