“Loud” is kind of easy these days. The mid-sixties saw Pete Townshend and John Entwistle of The Who in a volume war, both periodically going back to Jim Marshall to tell him that they needed him to build a louder amp, because each was struggling to be heard over the other (or Keith Moon). The Jimi Hendrix Experience did nothing to bring the volume levels down, and by 1970 Tony Iommi had realised that he could getting a particularly satisfying sound by running his Laney amp with the volume fully up. It took This is Spinal Tap to point out the ridiculous state of affairs with its famous joke about the volume knob going up to 11.
It would be too sweeping a generalisation to say that the titanic amplifier is a thing of the past, but people have known for years that the vast walls of speaker cabinets bought on stage by KISS, often to be detonated at the end of the show, are simply empty facades, with their guitars actually being connected to smaller amps backstage. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons runs a small amplifier into an isolation cab. Geddy Lee dispensed with any
dedicated bass amplification years ago, preferring to run his bass through a preamp pedal and into the PA system, the space normally reserved for a bass amp having been occupied by a fridge on some previous Rush tours.
The one thing which hasn’t gone away is the preference for valve-driven amplifiers. Scale it down to the smaller venues and there is no trickery about it: many blues guitarists now invest their money in small, hand-wired valve amps. The challenge, it seems, is to squeeze the rich, full tone of a vintage Marshall or Fender amp into a 15W combo – or less. Fender’s own Blues Junior is a popular starting point, and Marshall’s Class 5 has raised the bar (or lowered it?) by achieving impressive, vintage-sounding results with just 5W of output.
Some might say that bass players have been left behind in this respect, but that would be an even more sweeping generalisation than the one I side-stepped earlier. Many bassists prefer the clean, reliable tone of a good solid-state amplifier, replete with a 9-band EQ and adjustable compressor to sculpt one’s tone just so. Tiny but durable transistors have enabled the evolution of Class D amps that one can fit in a small satchel.
Some of us, on the other hand, still take their inspiration from Live at Leeds, and have been crying out for a bass equivalent to the small valve guitar combo. Bass amps begin with the handicap that those low frequencies require more power to project in the first place, but surely somebody could build us a smaller-scale valve head, which would be just powerful enough that we could run it a bit harder and get that glorious, gritty bite that only an overdriven valve amp can give us? Enter Ashdown Engineering.
The Ashdown Little Bastard 30 is not, according to the manufacturer, looking to claim this territory entirely for itself. It’s designed, they stress, for rehearsals, recording and possibly small gigs – modest expectations for such a stylish little amp. It’s named after James Dean’s car, and presumably modelled on it as well, with leather padding surrounding the chassis, and a shiny, chrome front plate that wouldn’t look out of place on a Cadillac. The back of the amp offers 8 Ω and 4 Ω speaker outputs, and a balanced DI from the preamp. Only one power switch – with fewer valves to warm up, Ashdown evidently felt that a standby stage wouldn’t be necessary.
The front of the amp looks similarly simple, but offers a lot more than a first glance would suggest. Four jack sockets on the far left: high and low-impedance inputs for active and passive basses, respectively, and an effects send/return loop. Panning to the right we see midrange, bass, treble, and volume. Next to each of these is a switch – mid-shift, to move the midrange centre frequency; bass shift, to change the main frequencies of the low shelf; bright, to add a high shelf to the signal; and mute, which is pretty self-explanatory. And just to the right of these, Ashdown’s trademark VU meter.
Wait a minute, you might be thinking: the midrange control isn’t between the bass and treble controls? I know, I know, it’s a bit counterintuitive – it certainly takes a bit of getting used to. But then, if you’re used to solid-state bass amps, the whole thing takes some getting used to. Most solid-state bass amps, after all, use cut/boost controls to shape the sound. The Ashdown is much more like a guitar amp, making use of a more traditional “FMV” tone stack. This is why the midrange is the first control you see after the input: electronically, it’s the first thing your guitar’s signal sees.
This is the other important thing to remember about the passive tone stack – you can only take away. If you wind all three EQ controls up to full, you hit the amplifier with the full brunt of the signal, though it’s not a tone many are likely to want to use regularly. Ashdown amplifiers seem to have a reputation among some players for sounding a bit “woolly”; whilst I think this is a little unfair, most users will want to wind down that bass control. The bass shift switch can take a lot of the deep subs out of the sound, and once the low frequencies are tamed, a beautifully clear tone comes through. That said, if you’re depping in a dub reggae band, it’s good to know that you’ve got the headroom to whack up that low shelf and sonically palpate anybody in the front row.
To fully counter the accusations of wooliness, flip the “bright” switch and hear the Little Bastard roar. The amp can be made to sound bright and honking without losing too much body, or sounding too brittle.
Ashdown are, of course, quite correct: even connecting the maximum number of the most sensitive speakers you can get your mitts on won’t allow you to hold down the bottom end at the Royal Albert Hall with this amp (even if you’re content to sound like Lemmy). Certainly, even with that surprisingly powerful low shelf on the EQ, the Little Bastard won’t give quite the right amount of bowel-shaking lows that many modern bassists crave. But on the other hand, that’s why many modern bassists favour compact, high-wattage Class D amps. Bassists like myself, who prefer a lighter sound, less bass-heavy and more midrange-focused, are going to be much happier with the tone this can provide at a small gig or in a recording studio. Wind the volume up, embrace the warm valve overdrive and enjoy the feeling that you might be drawing just a little bit of attention away from your lead guitarist.
And now for the bad news…in the course of my research to write this article, I discovered that Ashdown have stopped producing this wonderful little amplifier. Rather a shame, but I’m sure they had their reasons. The second-hand market isn’t exactly saturated with the existing ones, but that’s probably testament to how reluctant their owners are to part with them – I know I won’t be flogging mine any time soon! But if the above review hasn’t persuaded you to start looking for one, perhaps the sound clips below might: