J.P.'s Gear Review v2.0 - Ep. 7 - Fender Hot Rod DeVille, or the conclusion of The Bassbreaker Saga


First and foremost, Happy New Year!

Back in August, I purchased a Fender Bassbreaker that I reviewed (sort of) here. I ended up returning it because of some issues with the effects loop, the insane temperature it reaches while in operation, and a general feeling of "it could be so much better". I instead ordered a Fender Hot Rod DeVille IV 212 to replace it, and I regret not purchasing that in the first place.

Note: this review is not totally unbiased since I previously owned a Hot Rod Deluxe II and it's very close to my heart, being the first expensive pro-ish quality hardware I ever purchased (and the first tube amp I owned). I'll try to be as objective as possible.

Amp specifications

The Hot Rod DeVille is, for all intents and purposes, a Hot Rod Deluxe on steroids. They both share the same PCB and most of their parts. The main differences being the Deluxe has one 12" speaker and 40 watts of output power, while the DeVille has two 12" speakers and 60 watts of output power.

The DeVille has the same controls and features as its little brother:
  • Three switchable channels: Normal, Drive, and More Drive
  • 3-band EQ (shared between Normal/Drive channels)
  • Volume (clean channel), Drive, Master (drive channels volume), Presence, and Reverb controls
  • Bright switch, and Drive/More Drive switches
  • Two ¼" inputs (input 2 operates at -6db)
  • A real spring reverb!
  • Effects loop with ¼" jacks (Preamp out, Power amp in)
  • Two ¼" speaker jacks (internal and external)
They also share the exact same tube set: three 12AX7 (two preamp and one phase inverter) and two 6L6 power tubes. The output tubes are biased quite a bit hotter in the DeVille to provide 60 watts of plate dissipation. The rectifier is 100% solid state in both amps.

The DeVille 212, as its name implies, has two 12" Celestion A-Type speakers. For a while, Fender offered a DeVille 410, which had four 10" speakers. I believe it was discontinued when they released the v4 of the Hot Rod amplifier series because 4x10" in a combo amp is a little excessive (and also quite heavy).

It is not a small amp. The DeVille is 53.34cm high, 27cm deep, and 61.6cm wide, for the hefty weight of 25kg (or 21", 10.6", 24.25", and 55.25lbs if metric is not your thing).

Included with the amp (when purchased new) is a 2-channel footswitch to change the channel and toggle the More Drive mode and a fitted cover. Since I got mine used, the fitted cover was missing but the footswitch was included. Fender sells spare covers for about 31$, which I ordered separately.

Circuit analysis

I did not find any service manual for either the Hot Rod DeVille or the Hot Rod Deluxe, but The Tube Store has some schematics from v1 of both amplifiers. They did address issues and made some small changes in later revisions, but the core "block diagram" should be similar enough. You can find them here for the Deluxe, and here for the DeVille.

Hot Rod DeVille PCB layout

Hot Rod DeVille schematic

The input signal goes from the input jack to the first half of V1 (V1A). From there, it goes to either the volume potentiometer or the drive control, depending on the state of the channel selector. It then goes to V1B, then through the Normal/Bright switch and the tone stack. 

If the channel selector is set to Drive, then the signal goes to V2A. If the More Drive switch is enabled it then goes to V2B. Output from either V2A or V2B goes to the Master volume potentiometer

After the gain stages, the signal goes to the first half of an op-amp (U1A) to be prepared for the effects loop, then to the second half of the same op-amp (U1B) on its return. The output of this is then fed to the first half of a second op-amp (U2A) driving the reverb tank, and the return from the tank is mixed in the second half of the op-amp (U2B). 

Once the full preamp stage is complete, the signal goes through a long-tailed pair phase inverter and the presence potentiometer (which is basically a negative feedback control), then through the power tubes before finally reaching the output transformer and the speaker(s).

Overall, the circuit is fairly standard, and the use of buffers and op-amps is limited. the channel selector and "More Drive" toggle seem to be affecting multiple areas of the circuit which make following the signal path a bit difficult.

First impressions

I owned a Hot Rod Deluxe many years ago, so I already knew what to expect. However, although they share the same overall design, the differences between the Deluxe and the DeVille are not insignificant. I tested both in store with the same instrument (a Fender Stratocaster American Professional II with single coil pickups, very similar to the Stratocaster I have at home).

The Hot Rod amps are working man's amps. If you go to a venue or a studio and your amp breaks, that's probably what they'll have available. Why? Because they are relatively neutral-sounding, very easy to work with, and cheap compared to the other options. This is great because you can find them used relatively easily and for a fair price.

In a side-by-side comparison, the DeVille sounds a lot more full compared to its little brother. It could be because it has two speakers outputting a literal "wall of sound", or because of different parts values somewhere in the circuit. The dynamic range is much less compressed than on the Deluxe, which gives the DeVille a big advantage. The Deluxe sound great, but it hits different.

With all the settings at noon (except the volume and reverb), it sounds quite neutral but in a good way: you can really work with it and shape it to your liking either with the on-board controls or with pedals. The Hot Rod series has a unique sound: it's very clean, but not "Blues Jr." or "Deluxe Reverb" clean. When pushed hard enough (preferably with high-output pickups), the normal/clean channel will start to slightly overdrive giving a nice colour to your sound.

The reverb is an actual spring reverb tank that is op-amp driven. It is very smooth and pleasant, and dialing it in is a piece of cake, even at high volume. It goes from "really shallow" to "a tad excessive" with a lot of control in between. It does introduce a bit of noise when enabled, which can be problematic in some circumstances. Other than that, it sounds great and its easy to adjust.

The overdrive situation

When doing the prerequisite research before purchasing the amp I came across a few forum threads and reviews absolutely trashing the Drive/More Drive channels, saying they "don't sound like overdrive" and that they are "utter rubbish". I know Fender improved the overdrive in the third and fourth revisions, but even in the early releases it wasn't that bad. It's wasn't perfect, but it wasn't that terrible either. Most of these harsh critics are undeserved.

The overdrive on the Hot Rod amps is 100% unadulterated tube overdrive. It sounds exactly like a tube passing too much current. It is not a silicon/transistor distortion or a FET overdrive.

To those who say "It doesn't sound like a SD-1/Tube Screamer/Klon/etc.": it is none of these things either. Silicon overdrives and distorts very differently than the humble tube. Silicon op-amps are a lot more stable and will not produce any harmonics, and in order to get the waveform to clip at a tolerable volume, one needs to strategically place diodes in the circuit. If your overdrive/distortion pedal has harmonics and overtones then it's called a fuzz and it's also something completely different.

The critics do have a point in regards to the early revisions: the overdrive is a bit dark and the More Drive channel is it-or-miss. I like to use my Tube Screamer as a clean boost when I need a little extra oomph on the first drive channel, and color the sound using the Tube Screamer tone control. With the Hot Rod Deluxe/DeVille IV, they greatly improved the overdrive channels and the More Drive channel is much more usable than it was.

All in all, the overdrive channels sound great (at least on the revision I own), and both drive channels are usable.

Post-honeymoon evaluation

It's now early-January 2023 and I had the amp since mid-October 2022. I used it extensively over the last few weeks (compared to how often I usually play guitar), at least enough for the honeymoon fairies and butterflies to fade away and for me to be able to do a more level-headed review.

It's really loud

The Hot Rod series amplifiers are loud, which is great (until the police show up). The problem is that their volume control is sensitive and difficult con dial in properly. The schematics says the Normal channel volume potentiometer is logarithmic taper and the Drive channels Master volume potentiometer is linear taper, but they do not behave like either of these types. From what I'm hearing, they both definitely are reverse logarithmic taper potentiometers.

Logarithmic taper, also called audio taper, gives finer adjustment in the first 80% of rotation, after which the difference is barely perceptible. With a reverse logarithmic taper potentiometer, the proportions are reversed: from 0 to 20% the volume will reach 70-80% of its maximum, leaving 80% of the potentiometer to adjust 20% of the remaining volume. Basically, once you turn the volume to 3, there's not much more volume increase that can happen. Adjusting the volume between 0 and 3 is very difficult because every little movement of the potentiometer causes the volume to jump tremendously.

This brings another issue that is slightly less obvious: these amps develop their full character when the volume is pushed past 4. Setting the volume this high will cause you problems with your neighbors five houses over, though. In order to set it at a "bedroom level", the volume must be set somewhere between 1 and 2, but then the amplifier will sound a bit flat and dull.

There is a simple solution: get a volume control and place it at the very end of the effects loop, right before the signal goes back in the amp. Set the volume on the amp between 4 and 6, and adjust the actual volume on the volume control. JHS makes a really good one (the Little Black Amp Box), but it's really simple to build one yourself (Brian Wampler made a great video on that). A standard volume pedal can be used as well. With 15$ worth of parts and some elbow grease, you can tame the amplifier down to bedroom levels and get all the character out of it.

Another other option available to lower the output is to install a load reducer between the output transformer and the speaker. However, these devices are expensive and can cause some other issues (like a transformer meltdown or blowing up your speaker) when not adequately installed or when an inappropriate device is installed. You're much better using a simple volume control in the effects loop.

Or you could just open the amp up and change the potentiometers...

It's versatile

I mentioned previously that the Hot Rod amplifiers have a very neutral, easy to sculpt sound. That neutrality makes these amps great pedal platforms. It produces a great all-around tone and makes single coils sparkle. With high-output pickups, like Gibson's Burstbucker or DiMarzio's Super Distortion, you can get a pretty thick overdrive on either drive channels. The on-board tone controls are a typical Fender tone stack, which can be limitative at times. However, setting them to noon and using an EQ or a preamp pedal can make it sound completely different.

Along with the presence control (which is a bona fide negative feedback control), the amp features a bright switch to boost the high-end and make your single coils extra sparkly or your humbuckers slightly less dark. Both these controls allow you to control the overall "presence" quite well.

The Hot Rod amps have two inputs: input 1 is full signal, and input 2 is operating with a 6db attenuation. This allows you to use guitars with active pickups or really hot pickups while keeping the preamp and overdrive in check.

The main issue that slightly hinders its overall versatility is the shared EQ. This is a common complaint that I agree with. The overdrive channels could use a separate tone stack in order to have two distinct sounds. The clean channel and the overdrive channels are rarely set up the same way as they are meant to be sonically different. You might want to boost the treble for soloing with the overdrive, while having a thick mid-boost on the clean channel, and you can't do that easily unless you use an EQ with multiple profiles or fiddle with the knobs mid-song.

It's built solid

With its size and weight, it has to be. It's an amp that is made to be lugged around from gig to gig and not fall apart. The bulk of the size is to accommodate the speakers. Fitting two 12" speakers require some real estate, and so does the giant reverb tank sitting at the bottom. The PCB isn't exactly small either since all the controls are in a neat line on top of the amp. 

The cabinet itself is made out of lightweight - but solid - pine. Pine is a good choice as it is much lighter than plywood or other hardwoods while having the structural strength to support everything. The covering is Fender's standard black Tolex although some special editions were made available in white and blonde Tolex and lacquered tweed (tweed looks absolutely *gorgeous*).

The unit I bought was used and it was rented for about 290 days in its lifetime, which is bound to generate some bumps and bruises. Beside some loose screws on the back panel, some scratches on the Tolex, and some flaps of Tolex starting to unglue on the inside of the back panels, it was in great condition. Screws were tightened and the Tolex was reglued using contact cement and E6000 for the smaller scratches. A good clean-up with some Goo Gone and a quick wash with a slightly damp towel and it's looking as good as new(ish). We'll skip the footswitch for now, but it works fine.

It runs cool

One of my main pain points with the Bassbreaker is the ridiculously high temperature the entire front panel reaches when it is in operation. It becomes hot enough that you can't touch it without gloves, and it's a serious problem as some cables can melt at that temperature.

Both amps use different power tubes, and are biased differently as well. The Bassbreaker uses EL84 and these get hot. On standby, the tubes reached 95℃ on average. When playing for about an hour, they reached well over 160℃. All this heat is radiating upwards on the PCB, the cabinet, and the faceplate. What's also not helping is the design itself of the cabinet: it's barely big enough to fit the speaker and PCB in. Everything is so close together that the heat generated by the tubes has nowhere to go.

The Hot Rod amps use a pair of 6L6 power tubes which run a lot cooler: about 55℃ on standby and about 75-80℃ when playing, about half the temperatures the Bassbreaker reaches. The DeVille also has something neither the Bassbreaker nor the Hot Rod Deluxe has: a large heatsink around the power tubes, helping to dissipate the heat they generate as much as possible. The tubes sit a lot lower and have plenty of airflow around them.

Just being able to touch the controls without inflicting myself fifth degree burns is great.

The not-so-cool stuff

Every medal has two sides, and not everything is sunshine and rainbows. None of it is a showstopper, though (at least for me).

It's large and heavy

It's a 2x12 combo amp, of course it's going to weight a lot and take quite a bit of space; it's par for the course. However, it can be a big problem if you are gigging around and need to bring it with you. Even if the amplifier is made with that in mind (somewhat), it's still a beast to move around. I thankfully don't need to move it much as it stays in my office, but bringing it up a flight of stairs was quite an experience. Remember to lift with your knees and keep your back straight.

It's power-hungry and power-sensitive

The manual states the total power consumption is about 180W, which is about average for an amplifier that size. Depending on the electrical setup where the amplifier will be installed, this can cause some headaches when the time comes to connect it to an outlet. Like any audio-video equipment, it is sensitive to interferences and ripple in the AC and connecting it on the same circuit as computers and printers can cause audible noise. A simple surge protector will usually not be enough to help isolate the amp from external AC noise. Something like an IsoBar filtering surge protector or an IS500 isolator from Tripp Lite would be much better at filtering the noise. I had to completely redo the wiring of my setup recently and splurged on a Tripp Lite IsoBar 6. It works wonders.

Picture taken after the final electrical rewiring was complete. David from Tripp Lite approves of this setup.

It's loud...

Even with a volume control in the effects loop, it's still a very loud amp. The 2x12 configuration pushes a lot of air and makes things shake as soon as you crank the volume just a bit. You can tame it to play in your living room/bedroom, but it still a lot louder than your average practice amp. That being said, I'll quote a certain pedal manufacturer: "Loud is more good".

It's not cathode biased

The main issue with the Hot Rod amps (that was almost a showstopper) is that they are adjustable "fixed" bias amplifiers. This means that whenever you change tubes, they should be biased. It's not a complicated process and there are trimmer potentiometers on the PCB to do that, but it's not something that just anybody should be doing. Because you need to do this with the amplifier on, off standby, with the PCB exposed, you need to know what you're doing or you might be seriously injured (or even killed). Getting it professionally done is not that expensive, and it's better than risking doing it yourself if you are unsure of the process.

Fender acquired Groove Tubes a few years ago and put a system in place where power tubes would be matched in a specific category. Each category has a different ink color for their marking, and if you purchase replacement tubes of the same category you won't need to bias them. It's OK for the Average Joe™, but if you absolutely want these specific tubes new old stock JAN-GE tubes you will need to bias them properly. I don't know if that system is still in place, but it was pretty good: buy replacement tubes with the same colors markings and swap them yourself without involving a repair technician.

(Editor's Note: Groove Tubes is not a manufacturer. They only match, rebrand, and resell tubes made by actual manufacturers, sometimes even removing the original manufacturer's marking. For a long while, they used almost exclusively Sovtek tubes, now it's mainly JJ.)

The reverb is a bit noisy

The reverb effect itself sound awesome: springy and surfy as you'd expect it to be. However, being driven by an op-amp, I find it introduces (or amplifies) some artifacts in the signal and these artifacts can be heard from time to time, mainly when no note is played. It is a lot more noticeable on single coil pickups, even on the noiseless variety. When the reverb is completely off, there's no such noise introduced. It could be my reverb tank that is on the way out, or just a noisy op-amp. Once you play though, you really can't hear it that much. At least it justifies my Astral Destiny reverb, now...

The Fender tone stack is not everyone's favorite

Fender's tone stack - at least the one on the Hot Rod amps - is a bit limitative. They are good enough for everyday use, though. It gives you some control over the bass, mids, and treble, but I find the range of adjustment is somewhat shallow compared to other amplifiers (the tone pots on my guitars have much more range in most cases). I usually keep them at noon and use my EQ pedal if I want precise control over the waveform.

The shared EQ between the clean and drive channels is also not great I would have preferred different tone stacks for each channel.

Demo

Well, I ran into some issues while recording the video sequences and I need to record the demos from scratch all over again. The microphone wasn't configured properly and all the audio clipped at the source, rendering the videos unsalvageable, which is sad because I absolutely nailed the intros to Wasteland from Early Rise and Bark At The Moon from Ozzy Osbourne. I did use that amp in Episode 6 of the Gear Review series, so you can hear what it sounds like on that review.

I'll try to re-record and edit the video before the end of the week (that'd be January 6 or 7, 2023).

Update 2023-01-02: demo video is now live!


Summary

In my quest to find the perfect amplifier for my home "studio", I tested pretty much every brand my favorite music store had in stock: Fender, EVH, Vox, Marshall, PRS, Hughes & Kettner... Every time I tried an amplifier, I kept comparing it to a Fender. It made no sense for me to get something else, unless it was a "love at first play" situation.

I was always a fan of the Hot Rod series of amplifiers. They're relatively affordable, solid, they sound great, and they do what's written on the box. In the grand scheme of things, that's what is important. After the great Bassbreaker deception, I needed to get something that was familiar, and the Hot Rod DeVille is exactly that. It's a good improvement on the Hot Rod Deluxe I previously had. I may have been influenced by nostalgia, to get back "the one that got away", but it gave me closure on a few things to finally own a Hot Rod again.

They are wonderful jack-of-all-trades amplifiers, and excellent pedal platforms. That being said, it doesn't mean it's the amp for you. There are many other makes and models on the market that may be better suited for your needs, particularly if space and output power are a concern (really, nobody "needs" a 60W amp to play at home...). 

The All-Important Rating™

Build quality: 9/10 (Docked a point because I feel the Tolex quality is not as good as it was in the early 2000.)
Sound quality: 9.5/10 (I absolutely love how the Hot Rod amplifiers sound, but I'm biased.)
Features: 7.5/10 (It has everything it needs, and everything works fine. The reverb is a bit noisy but nowhere near Bassbreaker-level of noisy, and the tone stack is "ok" but could be better.)
Nostalgia factor: 42/10 (Just seeing it in store brought back memories.)


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