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Sarno Black Box

Discussion in 'Amps, Mics & Pickups [DB]' started by flatback, Aug 13, 2019.

  1. flatback


    May 6, 2004
    I learned here about the Sarno Revelation tube preamp and wrote to Brad Sarno to see if he had one to audition. He is a busy guy but when he gets ahead of his many orders he said he would build one for me to try out. That totally thrilled me because his tube preamp (built for clean not overdrive) has a variable imp dial (I really need that to go up to 20 Mohm so I am hoping I can get him to build it that way) but then he told me about his Octal preamp (that lots of bassists have been using) and his
    Black Box (a totally sick, tube piezo imp matching pickup driver with variable imp.)

    The Black Box variable imp should act as an HPF. I can see having a Black Box and a Poweramp or powered speaker as a super minimal totally stellar front end for a piezo pickup. I am really encouraging him to make an upright version that would have the higher imp setting (it goes to 1Mohm now)...not a difficult thing to do, Im told.
    His site is oriented toward pedal steel guitar but there are some serious cats using his boxes. I just love good tube preamps.
    Has anyone here tried one of these or his preamps?
    Steel Guitar Black Box, Audiophile vacuum tube pickup driver, buffer, impedance matcher l Sarno Music Solutions
    mikewalker and Jason Hollar like this.
  2. Looks awesome to me (as a serious preamp junkie!). Reading the specs though, there is no spec saying what the tube(s) is/are. Does it have tubes or does it emulate tubes in some way?
  3. flatback


    May 6, 2004
    No emulation. He is all tubes and hand made caps etc...
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2019
  4. Drew Tanner

    Drew Tanner

    Jan 11, 2019
    Marietta, OH
  5. Brad Sarno

    Brad Sarno

    Mar 14, 2009
    Chief Design Engineer - Sarno Music Solutions
    Yes, the Revelation, the Black Box, and the SMS Classic are all 12AX7 based circuits. Our V8 pre is octal tube based utilizing a pair of 6SL7's. Signal paths are all 100% tube with a high, 300v B+ supply to really get things swinging. I'm also a mastering engineer who's been modding, upgrading gear for a long time, so the mentality of the signal path is really obsessive when it comes to minimalism and component materials for their fidelity and musical/sonic qualities. Most of these devices are designed as clean machines. Bass and Steel Guitar and clean guitar styles and acoustic amplification are really the intended uses. The preamps can be pushed into a more squishy realm if wanted by higher gain settings, but my focus was not on that range of things except for the ability to gently shave off excessive transients.

    Brad Sarno
  6. flatback


    May 6, 2004
    The design on the Revelation is really pretty hip: it has the black box front end with Variable Z but then a tube preamp stage (I generally stay pretty close to flat so minimal is good) but the FX routing (parallel) is a great feature. If you ever use reverb or effects with upright having the FX in parallel makes a big difference (at least in the way I use it)...essentially it keeps the preamped dry signal in the box (rather then sending out the whole signal to be processed) so that when you mix in the amount of FX, it is only that (and with bass small) amount of signal that gets processed. Much cleaner and more useful for adding just the right amount while keeping the signal pristine. I use a looping pedal for a lot of my practice (as a listening feedback tool) and for several recurring compositional projects I have each year, and it works great with parallel FX loop (my AI Focus had the FX like that...also stolen)
    With the XLR option it becomes a DI and that I would use practically every gig. Looking forward to auditioning one of these boxes.
    Povl Carstensen likes this.
  7. flatback


    May 6, 2004
    Been looking at the manual for the revelation preamp..(https://www.sarnomusicsolutions.com/resources/RevelationManual.pdf) at first it seems like you wouldn't need certain aspects of its routing capabilities that are oriented toward pedal guitar but man I can so see the usefulness of its features. I would for example, with the revelation as my preamp get myself a volume pedal and really give that a shot in my set up. The revelation has it built in to use so intuitively (as the mute for the tuner and in front of the fx send) that it might be worth the complication of using it to have more precise ability to tailer volume on the fly (arco/pizz soloing, etc). But the eq looks very interesting (the way bass and treble stack work) and I am interested to see if the eq ranges are effective for upright...the idea...if I understand it right that the treble knob kind of drags the mids with it one way or the other could be really hip and intuitive if the eq points (or wider Q) worked with upright. And then there is the color knob....
  8. Looks great. Mandolin is my other instrument in addition to upright bass, and it looks like it would work well with either. The Revelation is out of my price range for a preamp but the Black Box isn't. It's on my wish list.
  9. flatback


    May 6, 2004
    Looks like Brad might be interested in making a super hi Z version with upright in mind. Plenty of upright players already using one of his boxes with the 1Mohm. Brad confirmed what I have known intuitively for a long time... piezos react differently with SS then with valves. What we are always dialing out with SS is smoothed out naturally with tubes.
    Really interesting guy with great ideas i cant wait to try one. Looks like a dial with several options is what it would be 1Mohm 5,10,15, 20
    Jason Hollar likes this.
  10. flatback


    May 6, 2004
    This is a quote from his email to me

    It’s interesting, this talk of pickups that want very high Z loading. Most of the people I’ve worked with using upright bass pickups find that the vari-Z is great at controlling, hi-passing, unwanted sub mud whether it be in the attack transient, a modulated subharmonic, the deep thump of a bow changing directions, etc. - most have found that on stage that they are often below 1Meg-Ohm when they get the mud out. But I have definitely not explored all the many piezos out there that apparently want much higher loading to find their full response.
    The EQ is really killer on bass. That 4-knob EQ on the Revelation is derived from a Bassman, but the “color” knob takes control of the center frequency of the midrange dip. Normally that frequency is interactive with the treble setting, that’s the classic Fender Tonestack, a musical gem, but this color knob lets you set the treble and then fine tune the mid dip center. In practice, the Color knob behaves a little more like a “tilt”, a broad and general fattening OR clarifying control. It makes the classic Bassman EQ WORLDS more flexible.
    And the big secret I’ve discovered with piezo’s and tubes is that by the sheer nature of a tube’s inherently very-high impedance, a tube can very smoothly and naturally track the wildly fluctuating output impedances from a piezo. When a piezo sees a solid state device, they seem hard, harsh, barky, and crispy-distorted. Then so many people try to EQ those problems away. Midrange parametric surgery, high end darkening, etc. But when a piezo sees a tube grid, there’s an amazing dance there, they just get along so well. The response from the pickujp becomes MUCH more smooth and normal, natural sounding, more like a good microphone than a pickup. So that’s where the Black Box comes in so handy with bass, guitar, fiddle, etc. It just smooths things out so much the player may not need all that complex EQ offered by the many acoustic preamps out there. It becomes so much easier to find a natural and balanced tone. The Rev obviously does this too with its built in black box.
    Wasnex and Jason Hollar like this.
  11. Ric Vice

    Ric Vice Supporting Member

    Jul 2, 2005
    Olivette, Missouri
    You may be on to something, since I don't really use one of the more common piezo's like the Realist or Full Circle, I don't have a lot of the issues you're experiencing with a "solid state" amplifier. With the Felix and the powered MAS 1/8 my bass
    sounds like my bass. I have the input impedance set at the middle setting on the Felix. In regards to impedance settings with tube amplifiers, Ampeg 15's had three different input impedance loads on each input. The "bass input was 5.6 megohms
    and the Channel 2 input was 2.2. Each sound nice with a piezo. So, even with tube amplifiers built in the 1960's, Ampeg knew that impedance loading was a important factor. Hopefully, when Jule Monique's Simone Preamp is introduced, I'll get
    a chance to see if it makes a distinct difference with my gear. Sarno has definitely got something interesting. The Headway EDB-2 has a 20 Meg ohm setting.
    flatback likes this.
  12. flatback


    May 6, 2004
    Yeah one of the things that I really like about Brad Sarno is that he is INTERESTED in tailoring his circuits to the needs of other instrumentalists and then opening up that possible market. I have talked with Jule a bunch (he lives nearby and his daughter is a friend of mine) and although I really covet a Birdcage, Jule is making what he makes and you will love it because it is great. (and it surely is). But the player focused way these Sarno units are designed is really super intriguing to me. They have features that show an instrumentalists priorities as well as a designers curiosity. (see above post about the fx loop) THe Black box is a perfect example: here is a Tube Piezo driver with variable Z in a small box made for cats who already have a SS back end (or combo amp or head) that they want to stay with. It is small, versatile (lots of different kinds of instruments can use it) and it wont break the bank. When I think of all the money I have spent on pickups, now I would like to go back and try them all with a Sarno Black Box...I'll bet I'd be happy with most of them. OF course I haven't tried one yet. Gotta get on that. But Rob Wasserman uses his Octal preamp and Bill Frisell uses his distortion pedal.
    Jason Hollar and Ric Vice like this.
  13. And how about that V8 model preamp, to go a bit more simple and exentric? I use a condenser mic though, so I try to stay out of things that do not have phantom power...
  14. flatback


    May 6, 2004
    Yeah I have not broached the subject of either 2 channels or phantom but Povi you and me be thinkin' on the same page. I have pestered Brad just about enough for a few days I think, but i'm definitely gunna get around to the whole 48 Phantom (XLR)/2 channel discussion at some point. I have already formed a plan to run my Felix either thru the Sorno (which ever one I end up with) first and then mix with a mic or blend the mic and pickup and run that thru the Sorno. Just, you know for kicks. Truth is I have been using just a pickup lately and digging on it and the simplicity of the sound or sending the mic, if I use one entirely FOH (which gets me a weird kind of room blending that I kinda like and does not feed back)
    Kristian likes this.
  15. Great discussion. Since I do about 70% of my gigging with piezo pickups (both upright and mandolin have 'em) and am a big fan of tube preamps, I'm very interested. I have a couple of tube preamps (Presonus and ART) and they're decent for some things but they're not as practical to gig with as my Radial PZ-Pre or Fishman Platinum for that matter. The Black Box sounds like it might be.
  16. flatback


    May 6, 2004
    Yeah Brad is gunna research and figure out the high Z aspect of what is needed for upright piezos, and make something in several weeks when time permits. I read a bunch about the Octal tube preamp and it sound like just the ticket: a lower gain but sweeter/cleaner/more dynamic preamp tube... looking forward but will have to wait.
  17. Jason Hollar

    Jason Hollar Jazz & Cocktails Supporting Member

    Apr 17, 2005
    Central Pa
    So to clarify... the existing “pedal steel” box is currently suitable for upright bass piezos correct? But you’re talking to the designer about a future unit that is a little more upright-optimized?
  18. flatback


    May 6, 2004
    Yes. The present box has a Vari Z to 1Mohm which is the minimal that a bass piezo will need. A lot of them will sound just fine but plenty sound better at 5Mohm or 10Mohm or 20Mohm. My Yamahiko I regularly have at 20.
    The REST of the Black Box, the way it uses VALVES to preamp the signal (read the above quote from Brad 'cause he explains it great) and ALSO the way that is ALL it does. no eq or gainstaging or any other functions means it is the best thing to put IN FRONT of everything BASS>Black Box>bass amp front end or preamp/powered speaker etc. In other words this box ADDED to what ever you already use will, chances are, improve the sound more then any other single thing you can (it may be the only thing you need at all BASS>BB>Poweramp/powered speaker. PLUS since it is a VARIABLE imp it means that you can use that function like a gentle HPF filter to dial out the mud. In my experience with a variable Z (imp) is that that aspect works so well that you need almost no eq afterwards. BUT it only works great if the Variable Z is in the bass range which covers from: Gooey too much bass (with most pickups) to thinner and more middy. Upright players plugging into tube gear are generally plugging into an impedance mismatch and so they think it does not sound like tubes and upright are a good match. But if you (as Brad says above) use tubes to preamp a piezo it sounds more dimensional and musical and mic like. Some Piezos (on some basses) will sound just right with 1Mohm but a lot of pickups (on basses with other characteristic) will sound best (in each new room) with some other Imp. Ideally a smooth dial on the Black Box would be great so that you would set up in a room and dial in where it sounded good (boomy room slightly lower imp then normal maybe) and pretty much be done with twisting dials except for setting volume.
    Then there is his totally baddass Preamp which has the Black Box built in but has a tube eq section(that is totally crazy cool the way it works), an totally well designed and usable volume pedal function, a DI, a sick FX loop (for using reverb or...routing signal to other places like a recorder) a tuner out, and then nothing else to distract you (like a second channel/blending function)...And on top of that he can make this box using Octal tubes which have a higher dynamic range, sweeter sound, but less volume boost (we are looking for pristine tone not guitar screeching distortion)...
    The whole system he has from offering a minimal inexpensive Piezo Buffer with Vari Z (black box) to add to your present system to a full crazy well designed preamp with the VariZ, with a Octal version is really cool. If the Vari Z can be made to ideally cover our piezo imp needs then it would be several great options for Upright players who want to really achieve the best from the piezo pickup the already own and use.
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2019
  19. y'know, you read like his PR man :)

    but I've got to say, sounds very interesting. I get the concept on the Black Box and agree that if you have a tube preamp with piezo buffer and a variable impedance you're pretty much good to go into whatever the power section may be for the gig.
    Chris Symer likes this.
  20. flatback


    May 6, 2004
    I just like cats who build things with an ear toward making my life easier. I don't have any stake in it
    Jon Mush likes this.
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