V-Stack BHM review
When I first heard about the V-stack BHM, I have to admit I was skeptical. Brian May’s signature tone is not only one of the most distinctive guitar tones ever recorded, but it is also extremely difficult to accurately reproduce. For the uninitiated, BHM’s tone is based around his unique Red Special guitar running into a custom treble booster, which drives the normal channel of a modified Vox AC30. May runs everything flat out, plus of course he uses a sixpence coin as a pick. These days copies of the Red Special guitar are easily available in the officially endorsed Burns and Guild versions. There are also official treble boosters and AC30s are widely available, so it is possible to put together a full ‘Brian May’ rig. However, there are a couple of serious drawbacks to this approach. Firstly, there is the cost – AC30s have never been cheap and added to the cost of a decent treble booster and guitar, the whole rig becomes very expensive. Secondly, May’s tone relies on running the whole rig flat out, which is incredibly loud even for large gigs and clearly impossible for home use. It is of course possible to use an attenuator to reduce the volume level, but this inevitably affects the tone. So, the prospect of a pedal which gives authentic Brian May tones at any volume level is very appealing. When I heard that the design of the V-stack BHM was based on the responses of a treble booster feeding into a modified AC30 normal channel, I just had to give it a try.
Construction and features
The V-stack is a very solidly constructed ‘stomp box’ type pedal with single input and output jacks and a reassuringly heavy footswitch. The controls are straightforward; the front panel features bass, cut, drive and master knobs. The bass and cut controls act as the EQ section, with the cut control operating in the same way as an AC30 cut control, by reducing the treble. The drive control governs the level of overdrive and the master control simply controls the output level of the pedal to match the requirements of whatever device it is feeding into. If you’re thinking that the V-stack must be just another distortion pedal, you’d be quite wrong. The simple controls belie the sophisticated analogue amp simulation that the pedal is based around. The unit runs on a single 9V battery, which is accessed by removing the four screws from the base. With an estimated 500 hours of battery life, you won’t be reaching for the screwdriver too often.
So, how does it perform? Let me start by explaining how the pedal can be used, as the flexibility on offer is excellent. It can be used as a ‘stomp box’ to feed into any guitar amp or combo, as well as running into a preamp or direct into a desk or PC input for direct recording. I tried it out running into several different amps at low (bedroom) and high (gig) levels, through a wide-range preamp for listening over headphones and running straight into my PC’s line in socket. I have to honestly say that I was impressed by the results in all of these situations. For direct recording, using my Burns Brian May signature guitar running through the V-stack straight into my PC, the tone was incredibly authentic without the need to add any EQ or reverb. Running into an amp the results are similarly impressive. Now of course with most amps, setting the EQ controls to the centre position offers a far from ‘flat’ response, but with a bit of tweaking I was again able to get very authentic BHM tones. You also need to bear in mind that a guitar tone which is based around a combo amp with 2 x 12″ speakers cannot be done justice by a tinny 6″ speaker, so clearly the results will depend on what you plug into, but for most decent guitar combos it should be equally good. Then comes the really tough test – playing at gig volume levels. Now, my experience of digital modelling preamps is that they sound superb for recording and at low volumes, but at gig levels they somehow feel rather ‘synthetic’ and just don’t react in a natural way. The V-stack is based on analogue simulation, so the digital artefacts just aren’t present and I was blown away by not only the tone at high volume levels but also by the natural way the pedal responded. Just like a great guitar amp, when you push the V-stack harder it starts to really sing. I was hugely impressed by the sustain, harmonic richness and the way it naturally runs into feedback. It also cleans up nicely when you back off the guitar volume control, just like a great valve amp. The band I play with cover a wide range of styles and I’m happy to report that the pedal coped well with everything I asked from it. The Brian May tone is there when you want it, but backing down the gain I was also able to get some very nice lightly overdriven tones.
The V-stack BHM is a well made, great sounding pedal which offers the Brian May fan a means of reproducing May’s famous signature tones either through an amp or for direct recording. Compared to the cost of an AC30 and treble booster it is something of a bargain and the availability of great tones at low volume levels make this a unique offering. For Brian May fans or guitarists just looking for great tone, this is a ‘must have’ product.