CALIFORNIA AMP AND STUDIO GEAR GURU JAMES Demeter has been a major force in the biz for over 35 years, with many of his designs achieving industry-standard status in studios across the world. But back in 1982 he was still a fledgling tube audio nut, without the reputation he’s since earned. The bass amp marketplace was decidedly less dynamic back in those days, with many amp designs being little more than rebranded and mildly revoiced versions of guitar amp circuits. Seeing an opportunity, Demeter wanted to build a purpose-built bass preamp that offered excellent flexibility and allowed the bass to speak with a clear, but warm, tube-based sound. His first prototype found its way into Los Angeles session icon Leland Sklar’s hands, and thus began one of the most committed player/gear relationships in bass, with Sklar favoring the Demeter preamp on countless sessions and gigs for the next 25 years. Having since downsized his rig, Sklar donated it back to James Demeter, who quickly fired it up for an audio trip down memory lane. He was floored by its gutsy and warm tone, which he thinks is rounder and slower than his later designs due to the unregulated power supply and vintage components. Not long after, Demeter found 150 of the original printed circuit boards (PCBs) from the design, and a lightbulb went off: Why not pair a preamp just like Sklar’s with a modern 800-watt Class D amp, and stuff it in the smallest box possible? The Minnie was born.
The Demeter Minnie head is exceptionally well built and handsome, with a refreshingly no-nonsense front-panel that’s as grokable as they come. The box is covered in vinyl and blessed with a durable top-mounted handle and sizable rubber feet. It’s not as portable as some Class D amps, but its small footprint and low weight still make it a cinch to schlep. Removing the amp from its box revealed a interestingly anachronistic internal design, with the old-school PCB of the preamp standing in stark visual contrast to the thoroughly contemporary surface-mounted board of the Class D/SMPS amp module. The two dual triodes are well protected when in the box, but I’m not a big fan of the blue LEDs that illuminate them from below when the amp is powered up. Seems a little cheesy, although this subjective opinion is certainly not shared by many high-end amp audiophile amp designers. The preamp features good components, like metal-film resistors and Wima capacitors. Tube nuts will approve.
The amp’s tone shaping is as straightforward as it comes, especially if one doesn’t expect extreme variability. In all-tube designs like this, it’s best to think of the tone controls as a series of highly interactive filters which, when used in thoughtful harmony, can yield a variety of useful tones. Unlike many more contemporary op-amp-based circuits, the Demeter’s EQ is gentle, and each knob is interdependent. So long as a player understands this characteristic, plenty is on tap. One interesting feature is the 3-position mode switch, designed to present an easy means to quickly go from dark, to normal, to bright. I found that its impact was much more obvious with passive instruments, and also dependent on the position of other front-panel controls.
WHAT LEE SEES
I paired the Minnie with a plethora of cabs, including the kind of one-trip 1x12s I love for small gigs, as well as bigger models from Epifani, Ampeg, Bergantino, and Greenboy Audio. I also used the amp in the studio, pairing its miked output with the signal from its slick Jensen-based DI.
The Minnie was a delight, and a little hard to pin down in comparison to the many other heads out there. It has a plush attack and colorful midrange, but also the kind of headroom and volume one might not expect from an amp with such a tube-y sound. In comparison to other Demeter preamps I’ve tried, like the HBP-1, it’s exceptionally warmer and less brutally transparent. I would not describe it as hi-fi in any way, at least not in terms of the input=output sense of the phrase. Rather, it imparts guts, character, and a fair amount of grease to basses, but offers the punch and low-end authority necessary to keep up with the loudest bands. It’s not like an SVT or some other all-tube monster, which is all gooey and grindy, nor is it like a tubby Ampeg B-15, with that amp’s notable tendency to pleasingly clip when you dig in. Rather, it’s a fascinating hybrid of the cool things about tube amps and the no-less-cool things about lightning-fast high-output Class D power amps. The tone sculpting (as discussed above) is useful, but not entirely intuitive. Again, I just twisted knobs until I found a setting that matched the personality of a given bass. The results were always musical and inspired.
It’s hard to find a more credible advocate for great tone than Leland Sklar, one of the most recorded bass players in history. If you want a taste of the sweet, syrupy sound that made him bass-famous, while also getting a contemporary level of output, the Minnie is an excellent, relatively affordable must-see.
Minnie VTBP-M-800D head
Pros Beautiful tube-y tone, but without the sluggish tube-y transient response
Cons Tone controls are not especially effective, but that does come with the territory
Bottom line A beguiling hybrid of old-school grease and new-school strength.
Power rating 800 watts into minimum 4Ω; 500 watts into 8Ω
Input impedance >1MΩ
Tone controls bass: ±9dB @ 60Hz or 120Hz, depending on switch position; middle: ±6dB @ 500Hz; treble: ±6dB @ 4kHz; presence: +12dB @ 2kHz or 4kHz, depending on switch position xlr di output Jensen DB-E
Tube complement 12AX7, 12AT7
Power amp topology Class D
Power supply Switch-mode
Effect loop 1/4" send and return, line level
Preamp output jack 1/4"
Speaker output jacks Neutrik Speakon combo
Weight 10.5 lbs
Made in USA