Is There A Gap In The Market For The MI Audio Flex SmartAmp?

Potentially cool technology, will be a big NAMM draw   09-Jan-13

Is There A Gap In The Market For The MI Audio Flex SmartAmp?

New NAMM, new amp, new technology, but Richard Beech asks if we actually need it...

Since the details of the Flex SmartAmp were unveiled by MI Audio, I've had many questions on my mind. Suffice to say, I didn't get G.A.S., as I did with the TC Electronic Ditto looping pedal earlier today, but that's because I generally reserve judgement about amps until I get to review them and hear them in flesh.

My relationship with the MI Audio Flex SmartAmp started off on the wrong foot. It took me about 48 hours to actually be able to get the name of the product right in casual conversation with fellow guitarists.

I know I'm getting older and more forgetful, but that's a bad sign, it's not a catchy name for an amp.

I'd also feel like a complete tool turning up to a gig and having the soundman ask me, "hey dude, what's that weird looking amp?", and I'd say "Um, it's the Flex SmartAmp, or something... really rock and roll title, eh?"

But I'll happily waive my opinion on the totally un-rock-and-roll name if it sounds great, so I'm looking forward to sprinting to the MI Audio booth as the doors open at NAMM and finding out for myself (albeit with the background noise of 1000 drummers hitting various cymbals, and 1000 guitarists shredding in G Phrygian).

The Flex SmartAmp seems like a novel concept, in MI Audio's own words, here's what it does:

"Flex SmartAmp encompasses an analog, pure vacuum tube amplifier circuit which can be digitally controlled via iOS to build a virtually limitless number of amplifiers.

"By using specially designed iOS software, the Flex SmartAmp has an intuitive control touch-screen interface that provides near-infinite amplifier options – all at your fingertips! Have access to an unmatched arsenal of amps, download custom one-offs, or design-your-own... your collection will be like no other. It will be the collection of amps you have always dreamed about."

So what we have here is a something close to be being an analog modelling amp, let me qualify that by saying that technically this isn't going to fit into the category of modelling, it would be fairer to say 'emulation'.

The Flex SmartAmp is designed to let you get a range of analog amp tones, but won't have a signature sound of its own, so essentially the party trick is emulation.

Through the control of the iOS app, you can switch in and out different parts of the analog circuit to get different sounds. We saw a much more basic version of this technology within the Line 6 DT50, which allowed switching from pentode to triode, and from Class A to Class A/B.

We expect the Flex SmartAmp to do this on a much more extensive level, including the ability to switch between different sets and combinations of valves. In the hands of somebody who knows their classic amplifier circuitry, there's no reason they can't at least get close some classic signature tones, and we imagine the app will give you some hints and help you along the way with some presets.

The technology is impressive, it represents yet another development in the industry of offering a range of sounds in one package. It's great news for people in covers bands, or who like to diversify their sound, but it will fail to win over the people who subscribe to the old school method of picking an amp, nailing your own tone with the amp, and using that to build your sound as a guitarist.

My question is, and this is a genuine question, how much room is left in the market for developments such as the Flex SmartAmp. I must admit to first thinking that the Kemper KPA was a bit of a step too far, but then I used it and I think it's a genius, and thousands of people around the world have agreed with me by purchasing the amp.

The price tag will be very important, and I can't help but feel that MI Audio have got off to the wrong start with the name of the product, and also the aesthetic. But these things will become unimportant if the brilliant technology manifests itself into a great amp.

I'm just sceptical about this one, the link up with the iOS controller feels like an uncomfortable one. It provides the advantage of being able to save your presets to an iPad, and then being able to access your presets in any Flex SmartAmp in the world, which would be good if you were going to a studio which had one.

But this scenario is unlikely to happen regularly, if at all, in the real world.

At the moment, I have many questions, and I won't get any answers until NAMM. MI Audio have obviously created a very special bit of technology, but whether they've created a brilliant amp remains to be seen.

I hope they have, because I'd love for this to be a success.

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