As a middle aged guitar player, old enough to have seen the 80’s & 90’s come and go, I have to admit how impressed I am with today’s crop of digital modeling combo amps. The fact that you can purchase an amp that will essentially give you any sound you want, with just about any digital effect that you can think of -- for under $200! -- is incredible to me. But as a middle aged guy whose experience with online apps and various forms of connectivity is limited, an important caveat is that I be able to access the grand sweep of a digital combo amp’s tones directly from the controls on the amp and not by hooking the thing up to a computer.
Of course, I’m not a total luddite here. I don’t mind having the ability to hook an amp up to my computer and tweak the sounds, but I don’t want to have to spend time downloading amp models to get the sounds I want. I just want to be able to plug in, turn it on, and play, just like a regular amp.
Blackstar seems to be listening to people like me. Other digital modeling combos, released by companies like Fender, Marshall and Line 6 for instance, offer a ton of presets, good sounding presets to be sure, but the controls are anything but intuitive, and it is almost impossible to access a simple baseline amp sound. In this respect, the Blackstar ID:Core 20 is different, and frankly refreshing.
Blackstar’s ID:Core 20 is a 20 watt solid state modeling combo amp with a powerful set of controls that allow you to get an uncommonly versatile sonic experience. With both manual and preset modes, the Blackstar ID:Core 20 puts achieving the sound you’ve always heard in your head right in the palm of your hand.
Physically, the ID:Core 20 is very small, less than a foot high and less than 15 inches wide, weighing only 11 lbs., but with a unique speaker configuration that gives it a surprisingly huge sound.
The controls, working left to right include voice selector, gain, volume, ISF (EQ) and effects (both selector buttons and level controls) and a mode button that allows you to switch between the manual and preset modes. There are six voices which include clean, bright clean, crunch, super crunch and overdrives 1 & 2.
The gain is surprisingly full at manageable volume and increases naturally with the volume, without getting overpowering. On most solid state amps, the gain ends up getting turned up all the way for lead playing, but you can comfortably get by on a setting of 6 or 7 on a Blackstar amp and get impressive saturation. You will also notice the saturation change as you adjust the ISF control, Blackstar’s patented control circuit that allows you to emulate the tone of British and American tube amps. ISF stands for Infinite Shape Feature and when turned towards 0, it gives a tight, focussed, percussive tone characteristic of American tube amps. When turned towards 10, the response becomes crunchy and warm, like iconic British amps. Keeping the ISF at 12 o’clock gives you a blend of these classic amp characteristics that gives you the best of both worlds - tight and focused lows with shimmering mids and fully saturated treble tones.
In the manual mode, you add all of the gain, EQ and effects settings that you want -- you are in complete control just like any solid state amp. In the preset mode, however, things are a bit different.
The Preset mode comes with 6 default patches that are pre-saved, one on each of the voice settings. These are Clean Funk, Chiming US Clean, Vintage Crunch, Hot Rodded Drive, US Overdrive and Saturated Lead. Blackstar calls them ‘enhanced voices’ since they come preset with effects and gain settings and are literally ready to go at the turn of the voice dial.
Blackstar has set up the manual mode so it is really easy to get the sounds that you want. In the set up guide you will find really easy to use directions to get you started finding the perfect tone: Step one, select your voice setting; Step two, choose your sound (volume, gain and EQ settings) and step 3, apply effects.
The effects section of the controls was the hardest one to master. In preset mode, the effects are already saved to each patch; in the manual mode they are setup on one dial in 4 sections, which is similar to the way Vox and Marshall, among others, have handled effects on their modeling combos. The difference is that the effects are not labelled on the amp itself and this is because they can be updated and changed.
The factory default effects run as follows:
Mod: Phaser, Chorus/Flanger, Envelope, Tremolo
Delay: Linear, Analogue, Tape, Multi
Reverb: Room, Hall, Spring, Plate
The effects have a level control knob and a TAP tempo button for the delay effect, giving you some versatility in the way the effects are applied to your sound. In the manual mode, each type of effect can be added separately and blended together, creating authentic amp and effects models like the presets. However, the single knob control setup does make it difficult to fine tune a digital effect. The fine tuning of an effect is best done in the Blackstar Insider software that comes with the amp (actually downloaded from Blackstar’s website - the photo above is a screenshot of what that looks like). We will get to more about that here in a little bit...
To engage the tuner, just hold down the Reverb effect button. The lighted Mod, DLY and Rev buttons then become pitch indicators, with the DLY in the middle indicating when your guitar is tuned to standard pitch. Screenshot of how the tuner is displayed on your computer when you are plugged-in:
Blackstar's Intro to ID:Core V2
The baseline sound of the amp is great. For such a small amp, its sound is surprisingly saturated, full and luscious. In such a small cabinet you would never suspect that there were able to fit 2 speakers in there, but in this unique design the Blackstar ID:Core 20 has been outfitted with two 5 inch speakers that have been staggered and positioned to provide an amazing widestereo sound. The widestereo sound is a lot like surround sound, and gives this little amp a sense of ambience and atmosphere that is really amazing, and really accentuates the effectiveness of the delay and reverb effects, literally making any room sound like a concert hall.
The sonic versatility of this little amp is truly amazing given its diminutive size and tiny pricetag. With built-in chorus, 4 kinds of delay and 4 kinds of reverb, you can create wide open atmospheric sounds perfect for all kinds of alternative and shoegaze music, while the saturation on the crunch and overdrive voices gives an array of crunchy and distorted tones ideal for everything from classic rock to shred metal.
The clean channels are voiced perfectly for a variety of musical styles. The Clean Bright is perfect for twangy country lead playing, while the Clean Warm voice covers all kinds of musical territory from clean rock and metal to jazz and fusion. An array of effects, which can be tweaked and saved to your amp using the Blackstar Insider software, add depth and sonic detail to the ‘patches’ (Blackstar’s term for presets) that give them a surprising amount of authenticity.
Screenshot of Blackstar Software
As I wrote at the beginning, I’m not a big fan of downloading presets from my computer to my amp, but Blackstar’s software works a bit differently in the form of preset ‘patches’ that you can save to your amp and recall in the preset mode. To do this, you plug your amp into your computer using a standard mini USB to full USB cable (is not supplied, but most of us have them around) and open the Blackstar Insider software. The screenshot above shows what you will see: the amp controls with effects below.
If you were looking for a more precise way to control your effects settings, this is where you would do it. When you create a patch, you set all of the amp and effects settings exactly the way you want them, and then save the patch to your amp. It is important to save the patch to your library or else, the next time you update your firmware or load new patches, you could lose the old ones.
Of course, you may be wondering what would happen if you don’t like a patch you create and want to start over. The amp can be easily reset to its default patches simply by turning the amp off and then back on while holding your effects buttons.
I was able to create a killer EVH inspired phaser sound, a great Surfing With the Alien Inspired lead tone, a clean tone a lot like Metallica’s Fade to Black in a matter of minutes, and the controls on the screen were a lot like the controls on the amp, making them super easy to use.
Overall, crafting your sounds is very easy with this software system, but the most important thing to me is that you really don’t need to plug this ID:Core into your computer at all to get great sounds. The ID:Core 20 comes with 6 great presets built in already, as well as a fully featured manual mode that allows you to craft your own tones with the easy to use controls right on the amp. If you want new presets, you can easily create them using Blackstar Insider software or you can even download presets or ‘patches’ shared by other players who have played the ID:Core series longer.
The Blackstar ID:Core 20 is the 5th modeling combo I’ve played and it is certainly the best sounding under 50 watts. Another really important feature that I haven’t mentioned yet is the speaker emulated phones jack. As a practice amp, the ID:Core with emulated phones-out gives the best speaker emulated tone that I have yet experienced from a practice amp. This feature alone makes this amp worth its price and also makes it perfect for line-in recording.
The only drawback is its size. The fact is that you’ll love the tone so much that you’ll want to make it louder. Of course, the emulated line out also allows you to plug this Blackstar into the Aux line-in on a larger amp, letting you use it as a preamp. This way you can access your presets while getting the really big sound you would need for a full on performance. But if you love the tone that much, you could also just upgrade to the 40 or 100 watt versions.
Don’t let the ID:Core 20‘s diminutive size fool you -- it offers a feature-rich amp experience in a size and price range that is ideal for a wide range of buyers. Of course, student musicians will love this amp as it has everything you need to start making great sounding music right away. Beyond that, the ID:Core amps from Blackstar have excellent speaker emulated phone jacks, MP3 AUX line-in and easy to use controls that put control over your sound right into your hands.
Experienced players and pros will love the way they can plug in and get a usable practice tone right away with a minimum amount of tweaking. Backstage, between gigs, or at home, pros can use this fully featured Blackstar to warm up, practice or hash out new ideas. The MP3 line-in allows you to practice with backing tracks, while the speaker emulated line out allows you to record new ideas with ease.
When performing live, it can be tricky to achieve a clear and pleasing sound experience for your audience. Even if you like what you hear in your monitors, this doesn't necessarily translate as the best possible sound perception to your listeners.