When I was in engineering school, the late, great Malcolm Chisholm showed us how to mic up a band. When it came to the guitar, he tossed this metal electrical box on the floor that resembled a DI and told the guitar player to plug the speaker output of his amp directly into the box. We students were a little worried about connecting SPEAKER OUTPUT directly to our console, but Malcolm was not arrogant enough to do something that stupid.
The clean guitar sounded really good, the distorted guitar sounded like crap. Inside the metal box was a transformer that took any kind of level you threw at it and dumbed it down to mic level. “Brilliant!” I thought and decided I would build one myself.
I never did.
When I opened the box for the Motherload, I was dismayed at finding no power cord and nothing on the back of the unit that resembled a standard power connector. “Dammit,” I yelled, as I thumbed through the manual. On the first page of the manual is a huge warning to make sure everything is connected properly before powering up your amplifier. It reminded me of this Chinese tea called “Smoke Quit” that explains very simply that if you drink this tea and then smoke, you WILL get a headache! I suppose it was a good thing that I assumed it needed power (it made me read the manual first).
The manual revealed a couple of diagrams indicating proper connection for various uses, a little explanation about what each dial did and the pearl of wisdom that the unit was passive and needed no power. Excellent! Shall we begin?
I’ll take your silence to mean YES.
I’ve got this old Sound City amp that has a really great distorted sound at full volume. You can’t get this tone from anything less. I’ve always had to rely on foot pedals to give me the distortion I wanted at a volume that was tolerable. So I was very excited to see what this Motherload could do. The connections on the back of this 1 RU box are clearly labeled Balanced Output both XLR and 1/4" variety, Send and Return for effects, Attenuator Out and Thru Out which allows connection to your cab and Input 8 Ohm Load. I plugged the speaker output of the amp directly into the Motherload, connected the balanced output to my console, turned all volumes down, and turned on the amp. There were no fires so I proceeded to crack the various levels a bit until I got sound. I was amazed to hear that it sounded like my amp! I mean it really sounded like my amp! The Motherload was clean and passed my amp sound directly to my console.
I proceeded to fiddle with the front controls. The Bass, Mid Shift, and Treble controls made sense to me and operated like additional tone control. The Line out knob allows you to adjust the output to your console but affects only the XLR out, not the 1/4". The other dials are a bit more cryptic. They are labeled Filter, Preset/Custom, and Resonance. There are five presets that change the tone of the amp in ways akin to moving a mic around in front of the speaker. Only in Custom mode do the other controls spring to life and allow you to customize the distortion, the harmonics for that distortion, and the resonance of the sound. This is where you leave the world of “here’s your five sounds” and enter the world of “more options than you can shake a stick at”. There are even five trims pots to adjust the harmonic distortion of each preset. So unlike its predecessors, this speaker simulator gives you control over everything! Each change is very subtle, but then so is moving a mic 1mm at a time in search of the ultimate sound.
The manual claims that the Motherload excels at clean and acoustic sounds, which I agreed with immediately. But what about that distortion? I turned my amp up all the way and was able to hear what that Sound City really sounded like. Unfortunately, it was not the sound I was used to hearing. I played and played and fiddled with the tone and it never really satisfied me. I realized that as much as the Motherload resembles a mic’d cab, it is NOT a mic’d cab. Fortunately you can chain in a cabinet and get your live sound back. One drawback here is that there is no other option than an 8 ohm cabinet. My cab is 16 ohms, but I plugged it in anyways. I thought about the Tom Scholz Powersoak from back in the day that allowed you to dial in your tone at full volume, then reduce it to a reasonable level. The Motherload does this, but like the Powersoak, it’s not the same. Why is it not the same? Because you don’t feel it! A speaker simulator will never replace the impact that a soundwave has on human flesh. So as impressed as I was with the sound I was getting to tape, my performance suffered because I wasn’t re-arranging my internal organs.
I can think of a number of great applications for this unit. A studio engineer would love this for its plethora of tones without having to own a ton of amps. You know how you’re always wishing you had one more amp for that overdub so it actually sounded different than the other 20?
Another application would be for the home studio enthusiasts who is in a spare bedroom or garage or apartment and doesn’t have the luxury of letting it go wide open. The Motherload would still allow great tone to be captured at low or no volume. That’s what it does best. Well, that and going beyond the call of duty to let us geek out to all the tones we could shake a stick at.