Sarno Music Solutions Classic Tube Preamp Review

Discussion in 'Amps and Cabs [BG]' started by edwinhurwitz, Apr 12, 2009.

  1. edwinhurwitz

    edwinhurwitz Supporting Member

    May 13, 2003
    Boulder, CO
    Endorsing Artist: DR Strings, SMS
    I just thought I'd post a quick review of a great new preamp.

    I've been using Brad's Classic Tube preamp for a couple of tours and it's been really great (in fact, I've become an endorser!). It replaced an Alembic F2b, which I've had since the early 90s. The tonal response is similar, as it comes from the same basic design, but not only is the sound cleaner (and the preamp is way quieter. No hiss to speak of at all), but it seems to be a tighter sound, as if all the frequencies are arriving at the same time. I've used it with my '67 Starfire and a Modulus Q6 with EMGs as well as a Lakland JO5 with Barts and a J-Retro. All of the basses are very clear sounding and can get a very deep tone. Another thing that I've noticed is that it allows my Starfire tones to develop a lot better. I've got the ACG dual filter preamp in that bass and I've also used an Alembic Superfilter in my rig. With the F2b, I've experimented a lot with the ACG preamp, but I ended up always using a very basic tone and doing more shaping with the Superfilter, but since switching over to the Classic, the ACG preamp settings seem a lot more effective and clear, so I've ended up using the Superfilter a lot less and the onboard filters a lot more. A kind of unexpected thing, but very enjoyable!

    As far as the details, it's got volume (which I understand is a combination of input and output volume to maintain optimum gain structure and noise levels), bass, mid, treble and a 3 position switch for bright, dark and flat (although with the tone controls based on the standard Fender Blackface circuit, there is no real flat per se. 2-8-2 (treble-mid-bass) is considered about flat for these circuits, but for me, usually 4-6-5 works out great). There is also a digital reverb built in, which is probably not of much interest to most bass players, but as I also play some guitar, it's nice to have in there. It kind of reminds me of the verb in my Lexicon LXP-1 in flavor. It's got a single unbalanced out. The power supply is built in, as the tubes are run at a full 300 volts. This isn't a preamp to get if you want woolly SVT style tones, it's more for very clean tones, along the lines of the Alembic stuff (or Demeter, etc). My current band plays electric bluegrass, country, reggae, rock, etc and it covers all those realms with ease.

    Brad has been really great to work with. He's really devoted to great tone and is very open to discussing the path to getting the sound you want to hear. From what I can tell, the preamp is customizable as far as component choices, carbon vs metal film resistors, ceramic vs silver mica caps, etc. I heartily recommend that anyone who's interested in a good clean tube pre check his work out. If you are anywhere near my gigs (, come on down for soundcheck, I'd be happy to show it to you! Just drop me an email. I don't have the opportunity to check in here much while I'm on the road, but email reaches me quickly.

    PS It also sound fantastic with my Gibson ES140 with very early Gibson patent # humbuckers. I look forward to finally getting off the road for a few days and being able to try my strat through it.
  2. koobie


    Jul 11, 2007
    Portland OR
    Hi, I wanted to see how this Sarno preamp is working out for you. I had an Alembic FX-1 and liked it's tone but wanted two things: a tighter bottom and the ability to boost the mids. It's my understanding that the Classic pre was developed for the steel guitar market. I'm a little skeptical that it's simple eq could be considered equally useful for steel, acoustic guitar and electric bass. What power amp(s) & cabinets are you using with the Sarno?

    Sarno also has their Revelation preamp with sweepable mids, it seems like that feature would be a useful upgrade over an F2-B.
  3. Brad Sarno

    Brad Sarno

    Mar 14, 2009
    Chief Design Engineer - Sarno Music Solutions
    Hi Koobie.

    I'll try and chime in here with a little info related to the questions you posted. The SMS Classic pre is based around the classic Fender tonestack. It'll do the old Showman, Twin, Bassman normal channel, etc. voicings. In my opinion, it's really not that ideal for acoustic guitar, but for guitar, steel guitar, and bass it's a very familiar and flexible voicing. Sure it doesn't offer the surgical quasi-parametric corrective type EQ that many modern circuits offer, but for some people, the minimalism of the simple passive tonestack covers plenty of ground. The tonal benefits of that minimalism can be significant, especially when mated with a cabinet that doesn't really need "corrective" EQ.

    The Revelation Tube Preamp is the fancier hand-wired preamp and is based around that same tone circuit. But the Rev has more input headroom and a slightly extended bottom octave giving a bit more 30Hz energy. It also has the "color" knob which is a very simple and passive method of honing in on that midrange dip frequency. It's a mid sweep.

    What's interesting to know about the vintage tonestack is that the treble knob is what some call "interactive". Essentially what that refers to is that as you turn up the treble, the midrange frequency moves lower. As you turn down the treble, the midrange dip frequency scoots higher. What happens, and it's usually not conscious, is that as a user is finding their treble setting, they're actually simultaneously finding a midrange voicing they like. The added "color" knob on the Revelation lets you further over-ride that treble knob interactivity and lets you find both the treble you want AND the midrange dip you want.

    I hope Edwin pops in to offer his thoughts.

    Brad Sarno

    (disclosure: I'm the designer/manufacturer of the product being discussed here)
  4. Bassflute


    Jun 24, 2006
    Endorsing Artist: MTD basses and strings; Bergantino Amps & Cabs
    pics, website, soundclips? You've got us all interested now.

  5. koobie


    Jul 11, 2007
    Portland OR
    Hi Brad, thanks for joining in, I've got some questions about your Classic and Revelation preamps. I went to your site and the pdf's of the manuals weren't working on my Mac.

    Using a passive bass, is there much difference in tone between the two units if the eqs are set similarly? Does the Revelation have a wider range of tones by virtue of the drive control? Is the drive strictly for optimizing s/n or does it allow for any grind, however subtle? Do you see the Classic as more of a gigging pre and the Revelation as more of a studio piece? What is the input impedance of the Classic? Is the variable z input on the Revelation similar to that feature on the Summit TD-100? What are the range of frequencies on the sweepable mids on the Revelation? Is the q of the Revelation's sweepable mids fairly broad? How do you account for the extra bottom end and headroom on the Revelation? Thanks!
  6. Brad Sarno

    Brad Sarno

    Mar 14, 2009
    Chief Design Engineer - Sarno Music Solutions

    great questions. First off, we're trying to fix the online manuals in the next day or so.

    The Rev and Classic sound very similar if you leave the Rev's color knob at noon. The Rev is a hair cleaner and has more input headroom due to how we treat the cathode circuit on the input section. The separate gain/master on the Rev is more for signal/noise gain structure optimization than for drive or grind. Although if you really drive the gain, it does begin to get a bit thicker, but generally not enough to generate what I'd call obvious "dirt" or grunge. Both preamps are fully intended as clean machines. The Rev is absolutely as much a rugged live device as it is a studio pre. Many of them are out there on the road gigging hard. A good handful of major country acts have it on stage with the pedal steelers. But it's equally at home in a recording situation. Same goes for the dual duty of the Classic pre.

    The Classic's input Z is 1Meg. The Rev's sweeps from 33k to 1Meg. The vari-Z is all about the tonal effects of loading on a passive magnetic pickup and how that controls the amplitude of the pickup's resonant treble peak. I'm not sure how Summit does theirs, but I'd guess that it's a similar approach.

    Since the sweep control (color knob) range is still interactive with the treble knob, the range isn't exactly some cut and dry exact figure. But in general I'd say that it nicely covers a range from about 250Hz to 1.2kHz. It's been a while since I scoped it out, but I recall it being something like that. The Q is fairly broad, definitely not a surgical notch. I forget the actual Q number figure of this particular mid voicing.

    The Rev's additional bottom end is due to the value of coupling capacitors in the signal path. I could easily alter values in a SMS Classic to do the same. I could open up the Rev's bottom end even more, but I tend to prefer a bit of tightness or control in the very sub bottom end, even with bass, but really it all depends on the bass, the pickups, and the cab and/or DI recorded sound. I find that a truly deep and extended subsonic bass can give a bit too much non-musical energy from the initial movement of the string from the pluck or pick attack. Leaning out the subsonics or in other words, taking advantage of a bit of hi-pass filtering, can help de-emphasize the loose rumble and emphasize the fundamental pitch and especially the overtones. The net effect being more punch or impact, and also more actual "audibility" of the notes in a mix. But again, that all depends on the response of all the other gear in the system.

  7. brewster


    Oct 28, 2004
    Just wanted to share my experience here. I play pedal steel and electric bass ( not in the same bands) on a weekend basis. My search for tone for pedal steel led me to the Revelation preamp (pedal steelers are perhaps even more nuts about tone then bass players.) To that end, I'm very happy with the Revelation pre, I'm getting the best and most flexible sound I've gotten. Decided to try my pedal steel rack for bass (Rev pre/QSC PLX 1202) into my Bergantino HT112ER stack for bass one practice and it worked very well. Nice clean round sound with good definition, no mush or mud, and good balance up and down the neck. The variable impedance control is very useful, and I found myself setting the unit basically flat and using the tone controls on my jazz bass to alter my tones as needed throughout the night. It doesn't seem like this pre has a lot of controls like some others do, but they're effective and if the sound is good , you don't have to make radical changes. Which for whatever reason, the tone controls on my passive bass provide all the tone control I need, which was often not the case with other amps. I don't find myself going to the preamp much at all to tweak, the sound is just there.
    For those of us looking for the feel and sound of tubes, with definition, clarity and musicality, this thing fits the bill. I've tried a bunch of the popular pres and amps, and this was the clear winner for me. I believe that over time, this pre is going to find it's way into a lot of rigs. If you can get your hands on one, give it a try. Mine's not goin anywhere...
  8. shwashwa


    Aug 30, 2003
    i have a couple of questions about these units. first, for electric bass, if you use some type of boost pedal or and active bass, is it possible to overdrive the tubes to create some distortion? also, do you think this would warm up an upright bass' piezo pickup sound?
  9. koobie


    Jul 11, 2007
    Portland OR
    My Sarno Revelation is a totally clean, warm, hi-fi tube preamp. It's not meant for grind. It sounds fantastic with my RA Mouse but the eq is pretty minimal, something to keep in mind if you need a lot of corrective shaping.
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