Multi-Amping for everyone – P3EASY & PCABSW4X – Test Report by Soundcheck

Palmer Guitar Tools Ptino, P3Easy & PCABSW4X

Multi-Amping for All Tastes

If you play multiple guitars live, the best place for them is in a multistand. Effects belong on a pedalboard or in a rack. But what is the most reliable and expedient way to deal with multiple amplifiers or cabinets? Palmer’s Guitar Tools series has the right special tools to make this process trouble-free.

We guitarists in particular love good equipment and just can’t get enough of it. So over time we collect various instruments, more and more effects, and – more often than not – even multiple amps or cabinets. Try to use such systems in a rational manner in the studio or onstage, however, and things get complicated. Not only because it takes substantially more time to set up and tear down, but because combining different amplifiers or speakers is also technically tricky.

Depending on the layout and application of the multi-amping setup, specific problems can result that necessitate additional equipment for reliable switching. Palmer has been dealing with such topics for a long time now. Its Guitar Tools series offers a few high-quality problem solvers even for especially difficult situations. We present three of them here.

All of the Palmer devices we tested are contained in massive, absolutely rigid steel plate housings and equipped with sturdy connectors and switches.Two holes in the base of the housing let you fasten the pedals sensibly to an effects board, rack, or anywhere you want. In the long run, a pair of screws can take more punishment that just hook-and-eye fastener solutions. The remote controllable switchboxes, which should remain close to the respective amp for practical reasons, do not have these holes. There is probably also no one who would come up with the idea of riveting such a box directly to his beloved amp head or cabinet. Inside the housing as well, one finds only high-quality components and meticulous workmanship. In short, this is traditional quality “made in Germany” in the best sense of the word, which is also reflected in the prices. Whereby these are still relatively reasonable in comparison with many so-called “boutique” products from the other side of the pond.

To use the pedals, by the way, you will need a dedicated power adapter for each or a correspondingly dimensioned multiple power supply.

All three signal routers are solely active, and integral high-end buffer circuits have a thirst for power. You wouldn’t get far with batteries in this case. At least the switchboxes draw their power from the pedals. So much for the common points. Now let’s take a closer look at the devices. In order to ease our way into the subject matter, we will begin with the P3EASY three-way signal router. Selective switching of a signal to multiple amplifiers is relatively easy to accomplish and to explain. In its most basic form, this can even be accomplished through purely mechanical means, using a passive A/B box.

So just plug the guitar into the switchbox, connect Output A to the first amp and Output B to the second, and you’re done – right? Well, not quite. The first stumbling blocks are already looming dead ahead. In most cases, there is a mighty hum as soon as the second amplifier is connected.

Thanks to the double connection to ground, we have just made a lovely ground loop. Suppressing this requires an isolating transformer that electrically isolates the two outputs. The P3Easy contains the very thing we need. Outputs “1” and “2” transmit the signal ungrounded. The third is grounded, so that the onboard noise shielding on the guitar can function normally. If this output is unused or only connected to a tuner, for example, there would be no ground connection at all via the amp input.

In situations like this, however, Output “1” can be switched from “Lift” to “Ground” using the pushbutton mounted next to it. They gave this a lot of thought. I am less enthusiastic about the fact that there is no emergency mode. If the unsecured power lead comes loose or some catastrophe befalls the power adapter (beware of free-range singers!) in the middle of a gig, you are going to be standing there looking stupid. The intransigent maxim is “no juice, no sound”. It would be more practical if a backup function was provided, which, in situations like the one outlined above, would always loop the signal through to Output 1 (for example). This would allow you to finish the song without having to unplug and plug in again somewhere else. Apart from this, however, one must acknowledge that the P3Easy turns in a flawless performance. Switching between the three outputs functions smoothly and without background noise. Even more importantly, there is practically no change in timbre in comparison with direct connection to the amp. The integral Class A FET preamp does not boost the level, but instead merely provides a bit more transparency because it converts the signal of the passive, high-impedance pickups into a low-impedance signal at the amp input. Without this circuit, one would encounter losses in the high frequencies because the capacitive effect due to the additional cable path would put a strain on and attenuate the signal. So this is certainly the better way. Otherwise, when it comes to tone, one really doesn’t notice the presence of the P3Easy. By the way, if you miss the capability of also being able to play through two amps at the same time, the P3Easy’s “big brother”, the Triage, offers this capability and a lot more.

Palmer pursues a different approach with the Ptino Two in One.Sure, this tool also allows you to switch selectively between two amps. However, it doesn’t simply switch selectively between two systems, but instead between two amp heads connected to one speaker cabinet. Of course, this can save a lot of trouble, especially when playing live. It leaves you with less to transport and only one cabinet to mic, and you can still switch between very different amplifiers on the fly. This is somewhat more complicated. It is no easy matter to switch the high voltage levels that flow between power amp and speaker, let alone do it safely. For this reason, the Ptino system also consists of two components: the footswitch and the switchbox, which are connected by a control cable. The switchbox obtains its power and receives instrument and control signals via this five-pin XLR cable. Logically enough, the cable is included and, at 6 m in length, should be sufficient for most normal applications. So first a 9V power supply (which again is not included) and the guitar are connected to the footswitch.

The heads then are, in a manner of a speaking, looped in at the switchbox – much like in an effects loop. This is absolutely necessary with tube amplifiers, because their power stages are not no-load proof and must never be operated without a cabinet. Thus when the Ptino is switched, first the amp inputs are muted via optocouplers. It is only then that the corresponding relays for the speaker outputs of the two heads open and close. This way, all it takes to protect the power stage that is not currently in use is two small load resistors. For safety reasons, when using tube amps, the manufacturer also urges users to make certain that the impedance of the two heads and the cabinet match exactly. Now Palmer’s “Two in One” system is not the only one on the market. However, it is so versatile, that it can be used with two tube amps, two transistor amps, or even a mix of both technologies. It doesn’t work that way with comparable competing products. With them, you have to choose a combination from the start. Players who own two cabinets, but only use them occasionally, can also use the unit as a “normal” A/B box when needed.

That way, for example, you can use both systems on larger stages, but settle for just one cabinet in the practice room and at smaller gigs. Not only its flexibility speaks for the switching system, however, but also the unobtrusive way in which it goes about its work. Despite the “soft” switching, the change happens so quickly that there are no discernable dropouts – and no background noise.

When it comes right down to it, you can’t hear the Ptino system at all, unless you deliberately screw around with the gain potentiometers on the switchbox, which permit a moderate attenuation or linear amplification of the input signal (+9dB max.). I am only a little perturbed by the fact that unity gain is not reached at the halfway point, but only shortly past it at approximately the one o’clock position of the potentiometer. The 1:1 position would be easier to find if there was a centre detent or if it was at least at the twelve o’clock position. The way it stands, one has to invest a little more sensitivity and concentration. On the other hand, many guitarist will be grateful for the additional headroom and turn the potentiometers up further anyway. Regrettably, again there is no emergency mode in the event of a power failure. Under these circumstances, the amps also no longer receive a signal, so nothing can happen to the power stages. The signal chain, however, is completely busted – and everyone stares daggers in the guitarist’s direction … Once you have completely hooked up the system while keeping your wits about you (we’re talking control cable, long instrument cable, two short instrument cables and three speaker cables) and adjusted the gain potentiometers, however, it works very well and is simply a joy from there on out. Plus the FOH mixer is glad that for one guitar cabinet he only has to sacrifice one microphone and one channel on the mixing desk.

Instead of settling for just one speaker cabinet, with the next tool, Palmer pulls out all the stops.The PCABSW4X Cabinet Switcher lets you selectively switch an amplifier to up to four different cabinets. Admittedly, that is not something that everyone needs. The device is probably intended more for specialists or music stores that want to present their range of products in the best way possible. Anyone who would like to hear their sound through various types of speakers for once, however, will surely be happy about it. It is a good solution for switching back and forth between entirely different cabinet setups in the studio quickly and without a lot of fuss, or a very practical way of using closed 2-x-12″ cabinets for heavy rock and an open 4-x-10″ for clean and crunch sounds onstage. It is an experiment worth trying. Many guitarists will be downright shocked how a different model speaker or cabinet changes their sound. Give it a go!

Again, the system consists of two units, the 412 Cab Switch and the Switchbox 4, which likewise are again connected by the now familiar 5-pin XLR cable.In this case, one will now have to think long and hard about the best place to put the switchbox, in order to avoid unnecessarily long cable runs. Moreover, always take good care of that special cable. It is probably going to be nearly impossible to find a quick replacement for it in an emergency. The 15VDC power supply (which this time is kindly included) and guitar are connected to the footswitch. Now an additional instrument cable is run to the amp input. Finally, the speaker output goes to the switchbox, which now routes the amplifier signal to one of the four speaker outputs, depending on which output is selected with the footswitch. So far, so good – but the whole thing is far from foolproof. If you want to use the system with a tube amplifier, you must either really connect all four of the switchbox’s outputs to a cabinet or be exceedingly careful not to select one of the unused outputs by mistake. Otherwise the tube output stage will be running under no-load conditions, which could have devastating consequences for the output transformer, etc.

In the Instruction Manual, the manufacturer recommends either protecting permanently unused cabinet outputs with load resistors or just uninstalling the extra switches.This is not the most elegant solution, but it is at least the safest. Next to this is again an instruction about impedance matching between amp and cabinets, as well as a reference the ground/lift switch next to the guitar input socket, which is intended to provide relief in the event of unusual background noise. Once again, regrettably, I have to complain that these two units are also out of commission in the event of a power failure. Apart from this, the system works smoothly, without crackling or other background noise, and with absolutely no effect on the sound.

It is a lot of fun to put the amp through its paces with the different cabinets and listen to the varying response characteristics. Of course, the technology behind this that makes it possible is very sophisticated. This also explains the big price tag for the system. This will hardly scare away sound fetishists and studio tinkerers.

The expanded tonal possibilities are simply too captivating – which can also be considered a suitable closing sentiment for all three of the Palmer tools tested here.

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Source: Soundcheck Magazine, Germany, November 2010

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