Breaking Down the VOX Amp Sound

Breaking Down the VOX Amp Sound

If you take a look back at the past 50-60 years of Western Rock and Pop music, there are a few pieces of gear that have genuinely made their marks. These pieces of gear were used across various genres in different generations, many of which remain relevant today. Some of the most important and most integral pieces of gear in my mind include the Neve 1073 PreAmp, the Fender Twin Reverb, and the Akai MPC.

Among others, these pieces of gear have shaped the music that we know and love today, helping to craft some of the most iconic records by some of the most legendary bands and artists.

Within the long list of iconic pieces of gear lies an amplifier that is undoubtedly one of the most sought-after pieces of gear by guitarists of all kinds. That amplifier is the VOX AC-30.

This single amplifier and its unique tonal qualities have been such an essential piece of musical history. Think back to bands like The Beatles, U2, Radiohead, Queen, Dire Straits, and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. You may not have known that the iconic James Bond Theme was first recorded with a VOX AC-15. I could probably write an entire book with every instance throughout history in which a VOX amp was used.

Today, however, I’d like to specifically talk about the VOX AC-30 and why I believe it is one of the most special amplifiers around today.

A Quick Leap Back in Time

In the late 1940s, an English man named Thomas Walter Jennings started a music company. The main focus of the company at the time was designing and manufacturing keyboards and organs. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that Jennings met Dick Denney, who showed him his unique design for the 15-watt electric guitar amplifier.

This was important, as England in the mid-1950s was the era of Skiffle and early Rock and Roll. This small amplifier presented a chance for Jennings to move into that realm. He cut a deal with Denney and decided to take on the designing and manufacturing responsibilities for the amplifier, renaming the company JMI (Jennings Musical Industries).

He took Dick Denney on as the leading designer before releasing the first amp: the VOX AC-15. The AC-15, as you probably know, is still around today and is perhaps almost as iconic as the AC-30. However, the AC-15 got tossed aside during the 1950s, as bands in the London area were looking for a bit more power or volume on stage. VOX needed to compete with Fender, who had the Twin Amplifier out at the time.

To compete with them, Denney decided to double the output of the AC-15 by adding another speaker and cabinet. Thus, the AC-30 was born.

The AC-30 caught on in England around the late 50s and early 60s, so much so that most of London’s popular bands were using AC-30s live and in the studio. One of those bands was, of course, The Beatles.

Doing Something Innovative

When Dick Denney tried to establish the VOX sound in the late 50s and early 60s, he was doing something pretty unique. In the 1950s, breakup and distortion were seen in a negative light. If an amplifier was distorted, someone was pushing it too hard. Most guitar amp designers of the time, including Leo Fender, were trying to avoid having their amps break up. Their goal was to create amps with super high headroom for a clean guitar sound.

At the same time, Denney designed an amp based around the EL-84 power tube, which had far lower headroom, meaning it distorted much sooner than a 6L6, for example.

A negative feedback loop was something used by guitar amp designers of the time, which was a circuit that fed a bit of the guitar amp’s signal back into the power amp to minimize the amount of distortion. Forward-thinker that he was, Denney decided that the effect the negative feedback loop had was not ideal and decided to scrap it altogether.

By getting rid of that negative feedback loop, he gave birth to the voice of the VOX amp.

On a funny side note, many VOX employees of the time note that Denney was quite hard of hearing throughout his years working at VOX, so much so that people had to yell when they were talking to him. This tells me that he probably heard the sound of the VOX amp far differently than the average person, and the iconic tone that it had could have been a bit of a mistake.

My guess is that this is also the reason why VOX amps are so bright and jangly, as he had to turn up the treble on them to get the clarity he was looking for.

The VOX Formula

Little did Jennings and Denney know, they were designing one of the most unique and iconic amplifiers of all time. In my opinion, there were a few unique characteristics that made this so.

Let’s first take a look at the power tubes. VOX AC amps run off of EL-84 power tubes, which, again, have much lower headroom and a completely different feel than other power tubes, such as EL-34s, 6V6, or 5881s. Of course, the power tubes aren’t the only defining factor of the VOX AC sound. In reality, it’s the combination of the power tubes and the preamp tubes, more specifically, the EF-86 preamp tube.

The other key component of the AC sound is the speaker. There is no better defining quality of the VOX sound than a pair of Celestion Alnico Blue speakers. Now, there are plenty of VOX AC-30s out there that come with Greenbacks, which are excellent speakers. However, when I think about some of my favorite AC-30 tones and recordings, it’s all about the Alnico Blues.

This particular mixture of speakers and tubes became such an essential ingredient in British Rock music throughout the 60s and 70s. Many, including myself, consider the tone a staple in the world of guitars. Brian May, one of my favorite guitarists of all time, wouldn’t have had his sound without the AC-30.

So What Is the VOX “Sound”?

Whenever I hear someone try and describe the sound that a VOX amp makes, I often hear them use some variation of the word “chime.” However, if you don’t have your guitar shop lingo down, “chime” might not mean anything to you.

To me, “chime” means presence or brilliance. A great AC-30 has a bright and airy sound without sounding shrill or harsh. You can hear the fidelity of each and every note, as they tend to come through very clearly. When you pick soft, the sound is soft, and when you pick loud, the sound is loud. It’s a dynamic amp.

Beyond the chime, you get a nice midrange presence when the amp breaks up, which is one of the reasons VOX amps are one of my favorites to use in the recording studio. You can pretty much do anything with this amp, from soft, buttery Jazz to mangled, distorted Rock and Roll.

One of the other great things about VOX amplifiers is that they are excellent platforms for pedals. In the 1950s, of course, there wasn’t a guitar pedal market. However, look to the early 80s, and you can see guitarists like The Edge catching onto this sentiment. Because it’s such a fantastic platform for pedals, many modern players have kept the AC-30 alive as a studio and stage staple.

They have incredible clean tones, breakup tones, and take pedals like a dream.

What more could you want?

A Look at Modern Day VOX Amps

In 1992, VOX was sold to KORG, who still owns the company to this day. All of the modern amps have parts manufactured in China, and the production methods and circuitry have changed quite a bit since the 50s and 60s. If you’re looking for a solid VOX amp, I would highly recommend looking for those made around 1992, as they were some of the last ones made in Britain. In fact, Marshall manufactured most of these amps, bringing their experience with them.

AC-30s manufactured around this time have the EF-86 preamp tubes, the Alnico Blue speakers, and a true-ish circuit compared to the original. While I might get some haters for saying this, I believe that this particular modern reissue of the AC-30 is better than the original.

Should I duck for cover?

Do Alternatives Exist?

Some of you might have quickly jumped ship to check out the price of a ‘92 KORG-era VOX amp only to find out that you’d probably have to blow your entire savings to get your hands on one. Luckily for you, there are plenty of cheaper alternatives out there that can recreate a similar sound.

When I think of VOX alternatives, I think of companies like Bad Cat, Matchless, or Morgan. Their boutique amps are wonderful options for VOX lovers who want something a bit different. You can also look at AC-style amplifiers in pedal form, including the Catalinbread CB30.

VOX Rocks

So there you have it, the VOX sound — chime-y, versatile, and a true staple of guitar tone. It is one of my favorite amps to have ever existed, and I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who would agree.

I hope this has shed a bit more light on the VOX amps, and just know that pretty much anything you are looking to do as a guitarist, a VOX amp can help get you there.

*plays paperback writer*

Tyler Connaghan Tyler is a guitarist, singer, producer, composer & engineer based in Los Angeles. In between duties at Humbucker Soup, he swims in the shark tank of music licensing for film and television. His favorite axe is his custom Pelham Blue Fender Stratocaster.