Black and Brown and Trem All Over

Magical modulation: The brownface Tremolux

You see a lot of chatter online about the differences between the tremolo circuit Fender used in its early-’60s “brownface” amps and the trem circuit that replaced it in the mid-decade “blackface” models. (Just Google “brownface blackface tremolo” to see what I mean.) The prevailing sentiment seems to be that the brownface version is the ultimate Fender trem—or so you’d conclude, judging by all the boutique amps and pedals offering the brownface version of the effect.

The way I’ve always heard it explained, the brownfaces created the effect by splitting the input signal, running one half through a high-pass filter and the other through a low-pass, and then recombining and modulating the two signals. Fender dubbed this circuit “harmonic vibrato.” Blackfaces, on the other hand, use a photocell and an oscillating lamp to create the effect, known as optical, or “opto” trem. Meanwhile, some small amps of the era, notably the Champs, continued to employ the tube-biasing trem found on some pre-brownface amps.

UPDATE, 09.02.11: As astute reader WB points out, the Tremolux demoed here is NOT an example of the “harmonic vibrato” circuit, but an even rarer Fender freak, an output-bias trem circuit:

The Super Reverb has optical tremolo, the Champ has preamp tube bias trem, and the Tremolux has output bias term. The “Harmonic Vibrato” is very different and sounds somewhere in between tremolo, a phaser, and a Univibe – this clip has a pretty good demo of a slow-ish setting :

Brownface twins, Showman, Bandmaster, Concert, Vibrasonic, Super and Pro amps had it, but Tremoluxes didn’t. From what I’ve been told, it’s a fairly complicated circuit that uses two and a half to three tubes for the tremolo alone. (there are different versions of it to complicate matters further!)

I’m not a tech btw, don’t know a volt from a watt, I’m just a Bo Diddley obsessed geek who loves all things tremolo and vibrato, haha!

Check out that link — wow, it really does sound different. Then thing is, I’m not sure I like it all that much, though I’d want to play with the intensity control to see what it sounds like at lower settings. There’s something a little seasick about the pitch modulation—and this is coming from a dude (me) who owns four Magnatone amps!

So what do you guys think?

Adding to the confusion is the fact that Fender always called the trem circuit “vibrato.” Technically, vibrato refers to a pitch-change effect, while tremolo refers to a change in volume, so most Fender vibrato circuits are actually tremolos. Magnatone amps are famed for their true vibrato effect, a lovely little wobble with definite changes in pitch. Supposedly, brownface trems have a bit of this true vibrato quality as well.

I say “supposedly,” even though I’ve used vintage Fenders of all types. They all sound fab to me. When I play, I just think, “Mmm, yummy Fender term,” rather than, “Hmm . . . I think I detect a slight variance in pitch in addition to the usual amplitude modulation.”

The tremolo test rig.

But since I happened to have specimens of all three types here in my studio right now, I recorded a quick comparison. For the brownface sound, I used an original ’62 Tremolux. The bias sound is a kit-built clone of a bias-trem Vibro-Champ. And for opto-trem, I used a silverface Super Reverb—not quite a blackface, but I’ve played it side-by-side with blackface Supers I’ve owned, and the effect is identical.

To level the sonic playing field, I recorded a guitar phrase into Logic Pro, and then used a ReAmp to pump it through the three amps. I recorded all the examples with the same mic—a Royer R-121—and connected each of the amps to the same speaker cabinet with a single 12” Celestion Alnico Blue.

Feeling brave enough for a blind-listening test? Then meet our lovely contestants! (Answers below. The honor system is in effect.)

Tremolo A

Tremolo B

Tremolo C

Careful about drawing too many conclusions from this. Vintage amps vary a lot from specimen to specimen. But to my ear, these are pretty good representatives of each type.

So which do you like best? I’m more drawn to Trem A and Trem C than to Trem B. They both have the dreamy, “lose yourself in it” quality I love in tremolo. Trem B seems a bit more two-dimensional, though hey, I’d still be happy to use that sound anytime. But I can’t say I’m hearing a lot of phase-shifting or true vibrato from any of the amps. Well, I can make myself hear those things if I instruct myself to, but really, the results just strike me as three nice tremolos in varying grades of juiciness. And the juiciest for me is Trem C, my fave.

Who’s who? Trem A is the Vibro-Champ with bias trem. Trem B is the Super Reverb with Opto Trem. And Trem C is the Tremolux with “harmonic vibrato.” So I guess I agree with the notion that there really is something magical about brownface trem!

So what are some of your favorite ways to wiggle?

16 comments to Black and Brown and Trem All Over

  • WB

    Tremoluxes didn’t have the phasey “harmonic vibrato”, The larger brownface amps did.

  • joe.gore

    Thanks, WB! A quick Google search just now found varying opinions about this. Complicating the question is the fact that the amp is not in my studio right now. But when I get it back, I’ll crack it open and look at the circuit.

    Now, if it’s NOT harmonic vibrato, why does it sound so very distinct from the other term types? Help me here, trem mavens! 🙂

    And I’d be very appreciative if anyone with a proper “harmonic vibrato” amp can send some clips? I’ll post ’em here. —Joe

  • WB

    Hey Joe,
    It sounds different from the other two because it is different! The Super Reverb has optical tremolo, the Champ has preamp tube bias trem, and the Tremolux has output bias trem.
    the “Harmonic Vibrato” is very different and sounds somewhere in between tremolo, a phaser, and a Univibe – this clip has a pretty good demo of a slow-ish setting :

    Brownface twins, Showman, Bandmaster, Concert, Vibrasonic, Super and Pro amps had it, but Tremoluxes didn’t. From what I’ve been told, it’s a fairly complicated circuit that uses two and a half to three tubes for the tremolo alone. (there are different versions of it to complicate matters further!)

    I’m not a tech btw, don’t know a volt from a watt, I’m just a Bo Diddley obsessed geek who loves all things tremolo and vibrato, haha!

  • joe.gore

    Thanks so much for the info, WB. I’ve verified it elsewhere, and you are totally right. BTW, I inserted your comments into the main post above.

    I hear you on the Bo thing! I too am obsessed with his sound. Not just the guitar, but the whole band feel, especially the way the shakers interact with the guitar and drum kit. I sometimes think that “Hey! Bo Diddley” is the most African-sounding rock-and-roll record ever made. So what trem did he use on that track and, say, “Pretty Thing?” (Just listened to that one again. I’d forgotten how much high-end there is on the guitar!)

    I was playing a session over the weekend at the studio of my San Francisco neighbor and pal Jane Wiedlin (of Go-Gos fame). I was noodling around on this funky old Harmony, trying to decipher the scratchy autograph on the pickguard. Yup — Bo. 🙂

  • WB

    I don’t think anybody really knows for sure what he used, but the story goes he used the DeArmond Tremolo (a confirmed other user is Duane Eddy!), a strange, primitive outboard trem, and supposedly the first commercially available one that wasn’t built into an amp. Pretty good article about the DeArmond Trem here :

    I do think he switched over to Magnatones, or perhaps brownface Fenders later – something like “Roadrunner” sounds like Vibrato to me, not Tremolo.

    African..maybe.. in any case, Bo to me, is the definition of “Idiosyncratic”! 🙂

  • joe.gore

    Yeah, how come we have so few great “idiosyncratics” these days? 🙂

  • Aceman

    Well, I agree with trem A & C vs trem B. However, I am honestly not a fan of totally old school Fender trem for the sake of vintageness.

    My personal favorite trem of ALL time? Peavey Valverb! That’s right, I said it – Peavey. If we are talking vintage. If you haven’t ever heard one, that’s a shame. Someday I’m going to get Scott at Celtic Amps to build me an amp with one of those as the Reverb/Tremolo circuit.

    However, IMO so much more you can do than just the classic warble. My favorite all time pedal? Diaz Tremodillo. Gotta love the 1/2 – full speed (or full – double time) button! And the Dunlop pedal is an awesome box as well. The wah style pedal version is cooler yet. Heck – even a standard Boss trem with the sign/square wave rules. Let’s don’t even get into the latest tap tempo trems!

    My very first trem was the one built into my old late 70’s Peavey classic amp. No better way to get your “Still of the Night” Whitesnake Cello interlude on than some trem a heap of reverb with a little two hands on the fretboard!

    For my money though, I gotta go with newer stomps. More sounds, greater ranges of depth and speed, more features, and just plain more! All for less $$$.

  • joe.gore

    Hey Aceman — you are SO right about the Valverb. Definitely worth picking one of those up if you can find it cheap. And it came it right at a time when everyone was omitting spring reverb and trem of their amps. My pal Art Thompson at Guitar Player was a big fan of that box.

    I used a Diaz Tremodillo back when I as playing with PJ Harvey. It’s basically a clone of the old Dallas-Arbiter Trem Face, as is the Swamp Thang, a current boutique fave. It’s a really juicy-sounding modulation, but I sometimes find it hard to dial in the right intensity setting. It’s hard to explain, but something about the nature of the effect makes it more prone to clash with whatever groove you’re trying to insinuate it into, in a way that just doesn’t occur with Fender-type trem. (Just my personal experience—your results may vary.)

    One awesome trem circuit goes by the name EA tremolo, because the unattributed circuit first appeared in Electronics Australia magazine decades ago. This is the basis for the BYOC tremolo kit, which, I can’t help mentioning, makes a great first DIY pedal project. Naturally, the circuit has been swiped by many boutique builders. Understandably—it’s just a great-sounding, tasteful, vintage-style trem.

    I was going to start talking about other cool trems, like tap-tempo analog trems, or ones with switchable waveforms or symmetry (like the 4ms Tremulus Lune or the Seymour Duncan Shape Shifter) — but figured I’d just shut up and save it for an upcoming post 🙂

  • Prison Rodeo

    I’m also a fan of the EA. And (believe it or not) the trem on the cheapo little Vox Pathfinder 15 is another favorite. (I think of it as the Vibro-Champ of the 21st century).

    • joe.gore

      Oh man! I can’t BELIEVE you mentioned the Pathfinder. I love that thing! Yes, a great trem, and rather EA-like, now that I think of it. The Pathfinder has been my workbench amp for a couple of years — it’s the first thing I audition every circuit through. It sounds absurdly good, doesn’t it? It’s amazing how often it’s a disappointment to bring a new home-made stompbox into the studio where the “real” amps live. And $119 new at Musician’s Friend!

      I got mine when I was recording Shootenanny with the Eels, and I wound up using it a lot on that album, even though I had “nicer” amps.

      Though you’ll never part me from my Ceriatone-kit VIbro-Champ either. Such a killer little amp…

  • Time to start the Trem Stomp thread….

    Now, back to our regularly scheduled Fender programming.

  • el Reclusa

    Ah, trem…still my fave effect ever, though after many years “dry” I hafta admit I’m developing a reverb addiction now too…

    For a brief period, we had a regular monthly “guitar nerd” meeting here in Kansas City, each one focused on one general theme. The trems, vibes, and swirlies meeting was one of the best- nothing like 30 or so people each bringing eight different ways to chop, bend, and swirl, locking them in a room for a couple of hours with adult beverages on a gloomy winter afternoon! Brownface trem and the Tremodillo both featured prominently that day, though the lovely trem of my ’50s Gibson GA-8T more than held its own…but I digress.

    I always wondered if the ‘Dillo was the trem sound in PJH’s “Working For The Man” or Waits’ “Goin’ Out West”, and I’d noticed John Parish using one onstage during the “How Animals Move” tour (still one of the 5 best things I’ve ever witnessed in person) and was VERY impressed, and really keen on trying out the Tremodillo…but for some reason, the one on hand that day was just kinda…meh. Not bad, but I was kinda bummed, even if I was glad the experience saved me from dropping a fair amount of coin on it. I wonder if it being one of the newer issue, post-Cesar Diaz (RIP) models had any effect?

    Anyway, aside from amp trem (and I agree regarding BF Fenders, the trem on my ’65 Bandmaster is decent, certainly serviceable, but not quite inspiring), the one pedal that has miraculously survived every gear shake-up I’ve gone through in the last decade is the Danelectro Tuna Melt, which, incidentally, I picked up based on a review in GP written by none other than Joe. Not the sturdiest thing ever, but it still works a decade or so later, and while it may not be the best trem ever, I can’t think of another $40 or so better spent…

  • joe.gore

    I think I used the Diaz pedal for the guitar on “Working for the Man,” but the big trem on the bass part is Polly’s Schaller. The Waits stuff is all just amp trem on my silverface Super reverb. I still use that same amp when I tour with Tracy Chapman.

  • Sprinter

    Interesting article! I have amps with tremolo on them, but I never use it.

  • Double D

    Way, way late on this thread, however I chanced to buy a Danelectro Tuna Melt for twenty bucks whilst touring through Minneapolis and damn, if that thing (cheap ass housing, sheared off tempo knob and all) hasn’t become somewhat indispensable to me despite it riding atop a Deluxe Reverb reish. Sooo much juicier and phasier than any amp or pedal I’ve tried, plus a little boost, unlike say, the Dunlop stereo unit.  Only thing groovier I’ve encountered was my buddy’s blonde piggy-back Bandmaster (I think-long time ago) which I believe featured the more involved and rare harmonic vibrato circuit. Oh yeah, and Magnatones, of course…

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