Here's the rundown on the specs/features for the Vox Night Train:
It is technically a single channel amp with a bright/thick switch, gain, treble, middle, bass and volume controls, and a pentode/triode switch that changes the output of the amp back and forth from 15 watts to 7.5 watts. I say "technically" a single channel amp because it has been talked about that way in numerous other reviews and demos, but I feel like the bright/thick switch functions as a channel switch... especially considering that the "thick" side bypasses the EQ section of the amp leaving you with just the gain stage controls. It has two EL-84 power tubes and two 12AX-7 preamp tubes.
There is no effects loop, no reverb, no midi control, and no way to switch any of the controls on the amp via a control pedal. The stripped down nature of the amp has caused some to typecast the little guy as a practice amp. I strongly disagree. The Night Train delivers raw, and excellent tone from jazzy cleans to shred-worthy leads and face melting rhythm sounds. This is one of those pieces of gear that fills certain niches, doesn't do everything, but what it claims to do, it does very well.
For my testing, I ran the Night Train through a Marshall 1x12 slant cab, and mic'd it up with a Shure SM57 on-axis just off center of the cone. I had the amp rig set up in its own, acoustically treated isolated room. This made it perfect for playing in the same room to get my tones and mess around with the knobs and switches, but also allowed me to leave, go into my recording studio control room, and continue to play while I listened to the amp through my studio monitors. This setup made it possible for me to dial in, record and evaluate tons of audio samples as well as create a short demo track that'll give you an idea of its sound and versatility.
One of the first things I like to do when I first plug in to an amp is sit down, and strum a big fat A2 chord. It seems to be a good sounding chord no matter what the amp tone is set to. So, before I got too creative with things, I decided to dial in tons of different tones and record them all... using just an A2 chord. This demonstrates what the amp is capable of gain staging wise without considering playing technique or genre specific quirks.
This first sample is in the bright "channel," triode mode (7.5) watts with the gain knob at about 9 o'clock.
Bright Channel, Triode Mode (7.5 Watts), Gain Knob at 9 o'clock
Here is the same sound with the amp switched to pentode mode for a full 15 watts of power. I compensated for the volume difference by adjusting the volume knob:
Bright Channel, Pentode Mode (15 Watts), Gain Knob at 9 o'clock
You'll notice that the two sounds are very similar, but the pentode sample breaks up a little less and is a little brighter. I found that I couldn't get the amp totally clean unless I was in pentode mode.
The next two samples are still in the bright channel, but with the gain knob turned up to about 3 o'clock. The first sample is in triode mode and the second sample is in pentode mode.
Bright Channel, Triode Mode (7.5 Watts), Gain Knob at 3 o'clock
Bright Channel, Pentode Mode (15 Watts), Gain Knob at 3 o'clock
The same traits are present between these two samples, even with the higher gain. The amp breaks up a lot faster in triode mode, which in clean sounds just gives the sound a little edge. In a crunchier sound, the triode mode allowed for a lot more of that overdriven, pushing the limit sound at a considerably lower volume. This is great for gigs where stage volume is an issue, or recording situations where you don't want the amp bleeding into the drum overheads. In order to get my Vox AC100 to sound this stressed out, I have to have hearing protection on, and be standing in the next room. Essentially, this type of amp is allowing great tube sound in a wider variety of applications. As you can hear from the samples, the triode mode delivers a considerably darker, smoother sound than the pentode mode.
Next, I flipped the switch over to the "thick channel." As mentioned before, in this channel, I no longer have the EQ section available to me. These next two samples are both in triode mode. The first sample is with the gain knob at 3 o'clock, and the second sample has the gain knob turned up all the way.
Thick Channel, Triode Mode (7.5 Watts), Gain Knob at 3 o'clock
Thick Channel, Triode Mode (7.5 Watts), Gain Knob at Max
There is definitely more gain in this "channel." The gain knob did not have near the range on this channel in triode mode as it did when in pentode mode (as you'll hear in the next section). The gain possibilities here in samples 5 and 6 remind me of that Third Eye Blind - like overdrive/distortion blend. Not too much, but just a very balanced, commercial rock sound.
The next two samples show the amp in its most wide open state: Thick - pentode with both a lower gain and a throttled gain example.
Thick Channel, Pentode Mode (15 Watts), Lower Gain
Thick Channel, Pentode Mode (15 Watts), Thottled Gain
The lower gain sample demonstrates that the amp can deliver some good distortion, but still maintain a tight, crisp and clear foundation while doing so. This tone, sounded great with my deluxe Tele --tight and aggressive!
The throttled gain sample just made me laugh when I listened back to it. I'm amazed that this little amp can deliver such a sound. To me, when playing leads with this sound, it delivered a very Jason Becker-like solo tone. You'll get to hear this sound in a lead application shortly.
Even though the triode mode provides for more gain at lower volumes, and a smoother darker sound, the pentode/thick combo still put out the most overall gain in the end. When you compare the hi gain thick triode sound to the hi gain pentode sound, you'll notice almost a mid-boost, and a mid-cut/presence boost respectively. I found that using the pentode/triode switch as a primitive EQ more than made up for not having the EQ knobs while in the thick channel.
After my little A2 experiment, I decided to record a short track using most of the above tones I'd just dialed in. Every guitar sound you hear was generated with our little Night Train. The track builds from light Jazzy cleans, to a Locrian Shredfest at the end. Here it is:
Most of the rhythm guitars were recorded using a Fender Deluxe Tele. Then I went back and doubled them with an Ibanez S-series Prestige. I, of course cranked the gain knob up a bit for the Ibanez. This gave the rhythm section a huge depth and really shows how the Night Train blends with itself. It is rangy enough to take on every role but doesn't ever get too messy to get in the way.
In both the clean parts and the super saturated leads, I noticed just how well the amp responded to the nuances of my playing. The amp doesn't cover anything up or leave anything out. What you play is what you get. I feel more one with this amp than a rectifier type amp. It seems to pull out what I am intending to play very well!
It was during the creation of this track where I really wished they had included an FX loop. I needed a nice reverb for the jazzy intro and a dual delay effect for my lead, and had basically two ways of getting the effects. I first tried using a BOSS DS-1 distortion pedal into a BOSS RV-3 reverb/delay pedal in front of the amp. This sounded okay, but I was not utilizing any of the warm or monstrous gain tones from the amp itself. I was using the DS-1 for all of my distortion, so if I was going to use the amp like this, what was the point of having all the range built in to the amp? After fooling around with the pedals for a while, I decided to record everything completely dry, and experiment with effects in Pro Tools after I'd done all the tracks. It ended up working very nicely, but it pointed out some very limiting aspects of the amp, especially in a live setting.
If you can't do any channel switching or effects looping, your forced to run any additional toys you have before the amp. A lot of people are just fine with this and I have played many gigs like that. Its just that the amp's tonal and gain ranges are so awesome, its a shame you can't have a "both/and" situation when it comes to effects and switching.
It really didn't even matter me in the recording studio though. I think that this amp shines brightest in the very situation I was using it in. Great tone, no frills, and it doesn't have to be super loud. Then, if you have access to using effects in a recording environment, you have the best of all worlds: True and superb tube tone, and digital effects to mess with.
Lets break down the track and talk about the various tones used in different sections. For the opening clean jazz section, I used a bright pentode low gain sound. Here is that opening without any effects:
Bright Channel, Pentode Mode (15 Watts), Low Gain
It was with this tone and my Ibanez S-series on the neck pickup that I really felt like I was "one with the rig." I got great response from fret board to speaker. When you compare this dry sample to the beginning of the track with the reverb, you can hear just how much a little reverb does for the overall sound.
The next sample was played with a bright triode middle gain sound with the treble knob cranked up. I liked the warm sound of the triode, but needed the sound to cut through due to the nature of the arrangement. It should be noted that I did absolutely NO EQing of any of the guitars after the fact in Pro Tools. I dialed in my sounds using only the Vox. Here is that audio sample:
Bright Channel, Triode Mode (7.5 Watts), Middle Gain, High Treble
The main rhythm riff was played with the Tele on the bridge pickup using a thick pentode middle gain sound. I turned the volume on the amp way of for this one. It's a tight, aggressive sound:
Thick Channel, Pentode Mode (15 Watts), Middle Gain, High Volume
For the rhythm high-energy end section based off of the diminished triads, I used the thick pentode sound with the gain knob at about 3 o'clock. I played the line twice with the same tone and two different guitars. The first example was played with the Telecaster on the bridge pickup and the second example was played with the Ibanez on the bridge humbucker. Here, you get a closer look at how the amp reacts to single coil and humbuckers at hi gains:
Thick Channel, Pentode Mode (15 Watts), Gain Knob at 3 o'clock, High Volume, Telecaster
Thick Channel, Pentode Mode (15 Watts), Gain Knob at 3 o'clock, High Volume, Ibanez
The last two examples are excerpts from the lead guitar. This tone was a joy to solo with. There was plenty of gain, but it wasn't too messy. I had the gain knob throttled, the volume up pretty loud and was on thick channel in pentode mode.
Thick Channel, Pentode Mode (15 Watts), Throttled Gain, High Volume
Thick Channel, Pentode Mode (15 Watts), Throttled Gain, High Volume
Hopefully by now, you have a pretty good idea of what this little guy can do. At right around $500, it delivers great, raw tone for the money. All of its competitors mentioned at the beginning of this article are in the same price range. The Rebel 20 does, however, have an effects loop on it.
In my time with the Night Train, I was able to get almost every tone I heard in my head with the exception of that super mid-scooped metal sound and the Fender 6L6 muffy bottom sound. This makes sense given the tube makeup of the Night Train.
If what you need is uncompromising tone and you don't mind the no-frills approach that this amp offers, I couldn't recommend a better little amp. If you're big on effects and still want to take advantage of all the Night Train has to offer, you're out of luck. If it at least had the ability to midi or channel switch remotely, it would make for a nice addition to dry/wet dual amp setup, but that is not what Vox intended. They wanted to deliver great and tone and range at an affordable price, and they did just that.