I made a video recently about having a go at exploring some of the dirty or distorted sounds you can get from the Boss MG-10 amplifier.
This amplifier has three controls that contribute to the level of distortion you can get out of the amplifier.
Two are potentiometers, one labelled “Gain” and the other next to it is labelled “Volume”. There’s also the “Warp” control which is a push-pull switch on the bass control. All three contribute in different ways to the overall distortion coming out of the amp, which in simple terms is that distorted “heavy metal” sound that everybody knows and loves.
Now although all three controls increase the gain of the amplifier, they don’t work in exactly the same way, and I don’t know enough about how the amplifier is constructed to tell you in electronic terms, so I’m just going to try and explain it in musical terms.
Starting with my little Steinberger Spirit guitar using the bridge pickup with the volume and tone controls on full, and going directly into the amplifier set on the “two and five” clean setting from the video where I explored the clean sounds.
If I turn either the gain or volume controls up the sound of the guitar will become more distorted when I play it.
If I turn the gain up to five then immediately there’s more distortion, and then turning up to ten there’s much more! It’s kind of horrible to be honest.
So leaving the gain control there, let’s concentrate on the volume control. Note that the master volume control next to it changes the overall volume of the amplifier full stop regardless of whether your gain is set to clean or distorted.
Now in terms of distortion I think the volume control is much more musical sounding than the gain control. If you’ve got this amplifier and you’re wondering what it can do for a traditional sounding guitarist, then is this the control that I would play with first of all
So leave the gain dial down where it is at about 2 and start to crank up the volume control up to 10.
Now I think with the volume control set at 10 you have a usable, musical-sounding distortion and this is the closest the amp gets, using this volume control part of the amplifier’s distortion circuitry this is the closest it gets to sounding like an overdriven guitar amplifier in the traditional rock guitar sense.
As with the clean tones, the eq comes in here; more gain can mean a very shrill sound, so it can be useful to bring the presence down a little; the presence is a very very high frequency treble sound, and if you bring that down to two it tames some of the very very high frequencies that can dominate the MG-10’s small speakers.
If you turn the middle control all the way down to zero and then bring the bass down to two you can hear a drastic difference; that really takes a lot of the flabbiness out of this sound, and gives a basic crunch tone that I feel we can build on.
I think this is the closest you get to an overdriven, plexi type sound using this amplifier. You’re never going to get exactly that from an amp like this which is all solid state with two, five inch speakers. But it gets close.
One thing that is noticeable with a sound like this is that all the guitar’s formal qualities come through. So if I switch to the neck pickup I can tell there’s a difference in sound, if I switch to the middle pickup and even if I try the in-between sounds they are all distinct sounds.
Meanwhile with the volume at 10, turning up the gain control brings in some sort of harsh clipping.
On its own, without the volume control I think it’s really pretty awful sounding, so we don’t want to use that on its own. We want to use that to start to boost the musical sound we get from the volume control being turned up high.
As always though with a little amplifier like this with tiny speakers when you add gain you want to roll back the treble, So if we go up to five on the gain control we definitely get a boost, but it is too harsh in the high frequencies, so you want to knock the treble back slightly.
Bringing up the bass!
Let’s look a bit further at this bass control, so keeping the gain, volume and master volume and other eq controls where they are, let’s bring up the bass.
Bringing it up to five it gets louder and that is moving a lot more air in this room.
Now what’s important to note here is that by this stage the guitar begins to lose its individuality; the amplifier is getting saturated and whatever I throw at it from the guitar gets dominated by the amplifier.
So there’s not such obvious differences between the sounds of the different pickups and whatever I play is beginning to sound a bit homogenous.
Down on the lower strings, it’s all beginning to sound a bit the same, it’s getting a bit Sabbathy and a bit sludgy.
Now when you take the gain all the way up to ten you move a lot more air and again you get a lot of treble, and we need to cut that back using the presence control.
On this setting these two little speakers are very nasal and shrill-sounding and not very enjoyable, so the presence control really helps control that.
Beyond the Plexi!
So for a traditional guitarist if we want the traditional guitar overdriven sound we’re better off backing everything off on the MG-10 and going back to that Plexi-type setting with the volume on ten and the gain much lower.
But what’s interesting about this amplifier at the moment is for me is that it’s making the whole idea of the electric guitar as a much more interesting proposition.
For a lot of people the amplifier is about making their guitar louder. They have a Stratocaster or a Les Paul and the amplifier makes their Stratocaster or Les Paul sound louder.
I want to play riffs or play songs by other bands the very saturated types of settings I’ve been discussing are not a good starting point.
But if I want to think of the electric guitar as a sound generator for me to play noises and melodies, well this is a totally separate thing, and with these very saturated sounds the amplifier and guitar are working together for me as one instrument. In a sense at this stage if I wanted this to be louder, I would get another amplifier to amplify the saturated MG10.
In terms of what the instrument has become, all of the complex harmonics available in the guitar are reduced to almost a sine wave type sound on the on the bass strings. It’s as if you don’t need a synth pedal, you don’t need to buy anything to make your sound guitar sound wacky.
When you’ve got a setting like this, pick noise is almost inaudible. There’s almost no point in having it and if I play with just my fingers there’s not really much that’s contributed by the pick because the sound is so saturated.
The amp is basically utterly overloaded and it’s got a wonderful extreme quantity to it.
For playing in a band playing musically, you would choose a better sound than this I’m fairly certain, but for single note lines it’s very interesting.
In particular if I bring in my eBow it makes some really interesting super saturated sounds that are miles and miles away from a clean electric guitar sound.
Turning up the mids!
Back in the land of sludge try turning UP the middle control.
That makes for a sound I’m personally very fond of. Not everybody is going to like it – it’s getting out of the way of traditional rock guitar sounds, but it’s getting into the territory that I like and that I remember reading and thinking about back in the mid 1980s. If the previous sound was all about the bass strings, the E, A and D strings, turning up the mids enriches the higher G, B and E strings.
Now again this is not something you heard very much of on record as a signature riff sound, but I personally think those of you chasing that Brian May Deacy sound, that overdriven transistor amplifier sound with a clipped front end, well I think a lot of that it comes in quite closely here.
Raising the treble!
Now if you want to get really crazy, turn up the treble!
After the dial goes around to about seven that extra treble really starts to thrash these little five-inch speakers and they begin to start to fry up a little bit .
Again with this much gain and now speaker distortion there’s not a lot of difference between the the neck and the bridge pickup; what you’re getting is PURE AMPLIFIER, which I kind of really like.
If you go any higher with the treble, you start to get evidence of why I think this amplifier is hated – it’s very shrill set like this and a lot of people think why on earth would BOSS release such a thing?
I do have to say it’s not pleasant being in the room with it set like this and bearing in mind the volume is at about one, I don’t know what it would be like any higher and my hearing is too precious these days to worth risking what that might sound like. But even going into “Albini territory” this sort of setting has no redeeming qualities (although it’s quite nice actually if you turn the guitar down).
The Warp control!
So this is a fascinating amplifier and it does of course have one more trick up its sleeve – the warp control on the bass control.
Now as I have explained you’ve got these very interactive tone controls plus two gain stages, two separate parts of the amplifier that colour the sound of the guitar.
The warp control adds even more fuzz and it cuts out the eq section altogether, apart from the presence control.
I don’t know how it works or what it does in terms of the circuit; it is not a separate channel – this isn’t a two-channel amplifier with this part being one channel and that part being another one. It just does something inside the circuit, and I guess the amp designers knew this and they gave it the right name – warp!
So if you ever thought is there more? There can’t be more! Well, there is more when you switch the warp control on. That is my favourite bit about this amplifier. I loved it when I bought the amplifier in 1989 when I was 18, and I love it now I’m a lot older (you can work out the maths).
Yes it is a blizzard of nails, it is a swarm of wasps that all want to sting you, in fact it’s a swarm of hornets that know that you’re covered in honey.
Now, I’ve never had a harmonic percolator or any of the stuff that Steve Albini uses for his sound – they’re hard to get hold of and vintage and rare and obscure and although there are clones and remakes unless you have one and the other solid state pre-amp he uses along with an aluminium guitar and everything else, you’re just chasing after the idea of gear.
But if you want to go into that territory and think for yourself, then get one of these.
They’re not vintage, or rare or obscure, and I don’t think you should pay a lot of money for one.
But this high-end area, this high-end saturated solid-state clipping distortion…there is nothing quite like the Boss MG10 for that sort of sound. It’s nothing like any other guitar amplifier I’ve ever known! You could stack together all the pedals you like and try to get something like this playing through a completely clean rig, or some sort of simulator or something like that.
But this amp on its own, when it becomes paired with a guitar with a big old heavy humbucker hitting that gain and then volume control distortion and forcing it all out through the two 5 inch speakers, well, it’s something else.
It was actually my preferred guitar sound for the majority of the 90s. Now I didn’t record anything, or release anything much guitar based in the 1990s, but it’s how I wanted my guitar to sound when I played it and I still love it, and I could still imagine myself building a whole band around it in some shape or form.
So, the Boss MG10. It doesn’t particularly do musical distortion sounds for playing in bands, and of course this is so tiny if you took it to a band practice you’d need to put it through a pa. Which is what we used to do when I played in the band Vehicle Derek; we used to use this for rehearsals in a rehearsal room and put it through the pa.
But to me, ultimately, it’s not just an amplifier for making the guitar louder. Instead it’s an ingredient to change the sound of the guitar completely, and in many ways it’s not making the guitar louder any more; the guitar is making the amp louder!
So! Come on all you noise kids, this is what it’s all about. Get one of these!
I think soon that I need to record a track using one of these in in full-on warp mode. When I do make another video about the amplifier, it’ll be interesting to take it out of the chassis and look at this circuit.
I don’t know enough about electronics to tell you very much about the components, but it might be useful for you to see what’s inside
There is of course a video to be made about what this amplifier sounds like through different speakers, and it’s possible with this particular one because I modded it around the back to not only be able to plug into other speakers, but it’s also possible to plug a different amplifier into it, so we could also test the sound of the cab.