A tone toolbox for the recording guitarist.
Adding to a line of products that includes the Millennium, Marquis, and Mirage series guitar amplifiers - each of which uses physical modeling to simulate a variety of classic amps - the folks at Johnson Amplification have now unveiled the J-Station modeling preamp. The J-Station is a standalone tabletop unit featuring models of 12 classic guitar amps, 3 bass amps, and 2 acoustic guitars. It also features Cabinet Imaging technology, which Johnson Amplification says re-creates the characteristics of 12 different amp cabinet/speaker combos. The J-Station's presets allow for extensive editing, which makes it possible to run, say, a Marshall JCM900 through a Fender Twin cabinet - without consulting a custom shop. The rig also contains a respectable number of effects for further tone tweaking.
Although you might find the J-Station in your retailer's stomp box and multi-effects section, its features make it especially suited for the personal-studio recording guitarist. That's not to say it doesn't perform as an effects unit; it does and very well. But the J-Station shines in its ability to funnel giant-size guitar tones straight into a sound card or hard disk recorder - without waking the neighbors.
THE ONCE-OVERAbout the size of a drum machine, the J-station is a well-built unit with a hefty metal chassis. The J-Station's control surface provides 11 knobs, 7 buttons, a 2-digit numeric display, and an LED tuner indicator. The six large knobs control the usual amp parameters, labeled, from left to right, Gain, Treble, Mid, Bass, Level, and Master Volume.
A separate knob on the right side of the panel lets you select among 17 amp models: J Crunch, J Solo, J Clean, Boutique, Rectified, Brit Stack, Brit Combo, Black Face, Boat Back, Flat Top, Hot Rod, Tweed, Blues, Fuzz, Modern, British, and Rock. The model name lights up when selected. An 18th selector position, labeled More, lets you gain access to a bank in which future software-updatable amp models (developed by Johnson) can be stored - a nice bit of obsolescence protection. On the unit I tested, the More bank contained models of a '78 Marshall Master Volume and a Hiwatt Custom 50.
The J-Station's effects section has a Data knob for selecting presets and adjusting parameter values, as well as three smaller knobs for dialing in, as labeled, Effects/Speed, Delay/Fback, and Reverb. A Shift button gives you access to the alternate functions. The other six buttons are labeled Effect Type, Comp (compressor), Tap-It, Gate, Tuner, and Store. The compressor, delay, and noise gate are always available, but only one of seven effects - chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, rotary speaker, auto wah, and pitch shift/detune - can be used at a time. The selected effect's name lights up in the matrix.
You can gain access to effects parameters at two levels: Top Level and Deep Level. Obtaining access to parameters at the top level is straightforward - simply select the effect and turn any of the three edit knobs. As the name suggests, Deep Level editing is more involved.
The J-Station ships with 30 factory settings and locations for 30 user settings. As a bonus, Johnson's Web site features a Patch Library where users can both upload and download user-created patches. Fortunately, saving user presets on the J-Station is a quick and easy one-click process.
GOING DEEPERDeep Level editing requires selecting a preset (a preset comprises amp model, cabinet, effects parameters, and levels) and holding down the Shift key for three seconds. The display then shows a number between 0 and 39, each of which corresponds to a parameter listed in a chart in the manual. The Effect Type and Tap-It keys now function as increment and decrement buttons, allowing selection of parameter numbers. After you select a parameter, use the Data knob to change its value. Deep Level allows fine editing of almost every aspect of the sound, including EQ, compression, effects, and cabinet emulation (which always comes at the end of the line). The effects' order can also be changed somewhat, and some global changes are available here, as well.
For all its wonders, though, Deep Level editing is a bit tedious thanks to the 2-digit display. However, on the plus side, the top-level knobs are still active, so you can readily make quick adjustments to the parameters those knobs control, even when you're "deep down."
The J-Station also offers a wonderful extra for Windows users: a downloadable editor/librarian called J-Edit that speeds up the editing process with an intuitive point-and-click layout (see Fig. 1). All presets are shown in a list, and J-Edit also has graphic representations of all editable parameters, including toggle buttons for global settings such as digital dry output and cabinet emulation. After editing a preset, you can name it, save a copy to your computer, and dump the whole thing into the J-Station using MIDI System Exclusive messages. J-Edit shows the effects' order at the bottom of the screen, and you can even change your presets' order in the list, which is very handy for live gigs. J-Edit makes the J-Station an infinitely more fun and usable piece of gear. Hear that sound? Those are my knees hitting the floor as I humbly ask Johnson Amplification for a Mac version of J-Edit. The buzz from Johnson is that Mac support is on the way.
You can also edit presets and effects using MIDI. In addition, the standard MIDI In port doubles as the port to Johnson's J8 foot controller with the flick of a switch. (Also, there is an additional jack for the more limited J3 footswitch.) However, the silk-screened graphic on the switch is fairly confusing - what appears to be the MIDI In setting is actually the J8 setting and vice versa.
HARD DRIVIN' AMPThe J-Station's primary bragging rights proceed from its digital-recording capabilities; indeed, this is the only unit in its class that offers an S/PDIF digital output. Granted, guitar-modeling plug-ins are available for many popular hard disk recording applications; however, the J-station has some definite advantages, in particular the speed and familiarity of using actual knobs and buttons instead of menus and mouse-clicks. Also, anyone who has tracked to hard disk from a plug-in amp modeler has probably run into digital latency: that small but annoying delay between what you play and what you hear. With the J-Station, you can avoid latency by monitoring the unit's analog output or by using headphones.
When tracking with the J-Station, you have the option of generating mono or stereo digital output, both at 24 bit, 44.1 kHz. Make sure your digital-output level is nice and hot, though; some of the J-Station presets didn't generate enough bits into my audio card, which resulted in muddy, weak audio with hardly any pick attack or depth. Fortunately, that problem is easily remedied by going into the Utility menu and cranking up the digital output.
MODEL CITIZENNow that I've covered what the J-Station can do, I'll describe how the unit sounds. I tread lightly here because preferences in guitar tone are so subjective. Fortunately, you can get a preview of the J-Station's sonic palette at Johnson Amplification's Web site (www.johnson-amp.com/jstation.htm). There you'll find a virtual tour of the J-Station, including mouse-over sound bites from each of the model presets (very cool), the latest version of J-Edit software, and some gee-whiz documents about Johnson's cabinet-imaging technology. Although results with the unit may vary depending on factors such as your guitar, strings, pickups, and playing style, the Web site does provide a well-executed first listen to the product.
I used two different guitars to test the J-Station: an Epiphone Les Paul and a Fender American Standard Telecaster. I patched the J-Station's analog outputs straight into an Alesis RA-100 reference amp and used Alesis Monitor One close-field monitors. I connected the J-Station's digital output into my Mac's Logic Audio card.
I checked out each preset but soon found myself tweaking them because many had heavy gain and effect settings that I was eager to subdue. To compare the raw models as fairly as possible, I created a user patch with no effects and then switched only among the amp models.
The first three models - J Crunch, J Solo, and J Clean - are imported from Johnson's combo-amp line. J Crunch and J Solo sound similar when first dialed up, with slight differences in the midrange and distortion overtones. Boutique and Rectified are high-gain models based on Matchless and Mesa Boogie amps, respectively. Each has a generous scoop in the midrange.
The mids are well accounted for, however, in the next two models: Brit Stack and Brit Combo. Those two models are tonally well balanced, with plenty of sparkle and bite. The Stack model loved my Les Paul, for which it provided gain and overtones galore. Black Face also proved a favorite of mine, thanks to its big body and punchiness. The Tele, with lipstick (neck position) pickup selected, was the hero here. When I used the Tele and Black Face in conjunction with one of the spring-reverb models, I could almost smell the tubes warming up.
Next in line are the two acoustic guitar models: Boat Back and Flat Top. Although not completely convincing at turning my Tele into a miked acoustic, the acoustic models provided usable sounds, both with distinctive high ends. Using the pickups closest to the neck helped the simulations sound more realistic.
Hot Rod is a straightforward combo model that really accentuated my Tele's biting midrange. Tweed has a smallish, compact sound with the personality of a 12-inch-speaker combo amp. Blues is another straightforward model, and Fuzz, with its massive overdrive and sound of worn-out tubes begging for mercy, channels the spirit of Hendrix.
Apart from the Black Face model, the clean amp sounds didn't reveal much personality until the pregain was pumped up a bit. Once I added some bite with the pregain, my guitar sounded more as if it were coming out of a cabinet rather than directly off the board.
As for the Cabinet Emulator, turning it off made for harsh, transistor-like sounds with far too much high end, so I ended up leaving it on for all of the auditions. Overall, it imparted a focused, natural tone to the models and, for the most part, enhanced the sense of an amp being miked.
Next on the dial are three bass models: Modern (based on a Trace Elliot bass amp), British (based on a Vox Top Boost), and Rock (based on Ampeg's venerable SVT). Each was warm and imparted a nice, round sound to my Fender P-Bass. The exception was the Rock model, which stood out because of the edge and growl it injected. That sound will be on my next recording, I can promise you.
EQ AND EFFECTSThe EQ for each amp model is based on what the actual amplifier provides, so the range is a bit limited. Indeed, small adjustments made almost imperceptible changes. I found that I could beef up the low end by really cranking the Bass knob or take some harshness out by backing off the High, but each model's overall sonic characteristics remained pretty much intact. Considering Johnson included effects in the J-Station that are not available from the individual amps the unit replicates, the company might also have included more extensive EQ offerings.
I definitely like the J-Station's effects section. The push-button ease of engaging the compressor and gate is wonderful. Compression is smooth and transparent with lots of sustain and no pumping and breathing. The gate does just what it should, silently removing noise without noticeable gating or false triggering. The time-based effects are all pleasing as well. Pitch Shift was the only effect that left a bit to be desired because of a slight delay in its tracking; however, that complaint is minor.
Delay and Reverb levels are readily set by knobs, and both offer a nice variety of analog and digital models. I was especially impressed with the spring reverbs, which are convincing and a lot of fun to mess with.
STAGE MEISTERI couldn't resist trying the J-Station through my trusty Peavey Classic 50 tube amp. To do so, I first turned off the cabinet emulation. (That is done, thankfully, using a one-step global setting accessible through the Utility menu.) Next I ran the left output directly into the power-amp input, bypassing the Classic 50's preamp (after making sure the J-Station's Master Output knob was turned all the way down, of course). As before, I tweaked the factory presets a bit using both Top-Level and Deep-Level editing.
In combination with my tube amp, the J-Station models were noticeably warmer sounding and had less digital edge. I was again impressed by the effects, which were solid performers in this application. The J-Station gave my stage amp several new personalities. Now all I need is a MIDI pedal board!
SOLID DEALThe J-Station is a good-sounding, well-built, and easy-to-use unit. The effects are sonically right on and a breeze to tweak. The J-Edit software is an absolute gem. Indeed, I am adding the J-Station to my arsenal both for recording and live performance.
The most difficult thing about the J-Station may be how to categorize it. From what I've seen in catalogs and stores, the unit seems to get lumped into the stompbox and multi-effects category. Retailers would do better to put the unit next to the hard disk recorders. The people who should be most excited about the J-Station are personal-studio guitarists who don't have a vintage amps collection at their disposal - and those whose neighbors won't tolerate wailing guitars at all hours of the night.