Is it time we started talking about vintage solid-state amps? According to Randall, artists from Def Leppard to Dimebag Darrell to the Edge all built their tone around the sound of the RG80 amp. Randall also claims that the FET-based preamp circuit ‘sounds unlike any other solid-state amp’ because it ‘reacts with guitars in a similar sonic characteristic as does a tube’, creating ‘a unique dynamic that has the depth and tonal complexity that flat-sounding modelling amps cannot achieve’.
The RG8040 has two channels, each with Gain and Master volume controls. The channels are routed through shared tone controls – Bass (with pull-switch bass boost), Middle (with scoop), Treble, and Presence.
Other features include XLR direct out with ground lift, effects loop, stereo media input, headphone output, extension speaker output and spring reverb. Replacing the original 12" Celestion is a 100W Diavlo, specially voiced for the RG8040 and designed for high volume handling and sonically pleasing break-up when pushed hard.
The original RG80s were renowned for their volume, and the RG8040 carries the flag. The clean channel has a big sound with plenty of clarity. Compared to a valve amp there seems to be far less harmonic complexity, and this deficit in harmonic overtones creates a dry and surprisingly woody quality with a stronger emphasis on the fundamental frequency and an impressively direct tone.
Semi-acoustics sound particularly sweet through the clean channel, and you can get clear and smooth jazzy sounds without the constipated tone associated with many small-box jazz guitar amps. There’s plenty of treble, especially when you pull the Bright switch, but do take care with single-coil solidbodies because the top end can get a little fierce. If you take some time to dial in the tone controls, you’ll be rewarded with chime and twang – and a very nice spring reverb.
With the Master control at maximum things stay clean up to around the half way point of the Gain control. Above this the clean channel moves into a mild overdrive, aided and abetted by some extra breakup and compression from the speaker.
You won’t experience the touch sensitivity and singing sustain you might associate with cranked valve amps, but it’s still an enjoyable tone. You can also clean things up by rolling back your guitar volume, but things do get a bit ragged and grainy as the Gain control nears maximum. To compensate we tried running the RG8040 a bit cleaner and used an overdrive pedal instead, but unfortunately this merely induced the same fizziness we experienced by cranking the amp gain.
Hoping for better luck, we moved over to the dirty channel. There are three ways to do this – via the front-panel switch or with one of two optional footswitches. Randall’s UK distributors didn’t send either pedal with the review amp but according to the website the RF2T2C provides channel and boost switching while the RFRG80 has an extra footswitch for reverb.
There’s really no smooth transition from the mild overdrive of the clean channel to Ch2’s full-on distortion. Even with Gain control near minimum you get distortion with single coils as well as humbuckers. Compared to the original RG80 this version sounds like it has been voiced for more modern players. The distortion tones are aggressive, crunchy and grinding. The mid-scoop switch accentuates the contemporary rock voicing and the tone controls are powerful enough to tweak frequency response in pretty much any direction.
The tendency towards fizziness we noticed on Channel 1 is even more evident on Channel 2. Things are okay until the Gain control reaches about a third of the way up, at which point the distorting becomes slightly ragged, grainy and mushy. Thirds and fifths come over just fine, but sevenths and ninths degenerate into the type of conflicted harmonic mush you might usually associate with fuzzboxes.
For harmonically undemanding rhythm parts the RG8040 proved to be a lot of fun, especially with humbuckers feeding the front end, but single-note solos seemed to expose the limitations of the solid state circuitry just a bit too much. Alas, the absence of footswitches meant we couldn’t engage the ‘secret’ boost function, so we can’t report on how that sounds.
Setting aside digital modelling, most guitarists would probably agree that while solid state amps can be engineered to have valve-like characteristics, discerning players will usually be able to distinguish one from the other. That’s not a value judgment, incidentally… merely an observation based on years of experience.
The Randall RG8040 is not without its charms, but nobody should consider it to be a direct alternative to valve or even digital modelling amps. This Randall is really about big, warm, clear solid-state clean tones and the grainy bite and aggression of MOSFET overdrive. What’s more, it produces some interesting and characterful sounds that you really can’t get from tubes or DSP chips.
We understand why Randall wants to revive and update one of its Heritage products in its 40th anniversary year, but today’s budget amp market is very different to what it was in the early 1980s. The RG8040 once represented mainstream technology; now it’s more like a niche product.
By modern standards, it’s also comparatively lacking in features and seems somewhat dated despite the re-voicing.