THE AMPEG VH-140C EXPLAINED (My Valhalla)
(written October 2019; update July 2023)
This used to be part of the SS-140 repair page here.
MY PERSONAL QUEST TO FIND VALHALLA: My first amp and a broken hardshell case were thrown in with a used 1984 Squier Strat purchase when I was sixteen. That guitar was (still is) pretty nice, but that practice amp was a total piece of shit. It was 5watts (supposedly ) of rock and roll sadness. It sounded awful, so was no fun.
Approaching my twenties, I of course assumed more wattage meant better sound ...simple math. There was an Ampeg VH-140C with the standard Ampeg-Eminence speakers listed in the newspaper classifieds. I can’t for sure remember how much I paid for it, because sometimes I believe it was $550. But I'm thinking there’s no way I saved that much at twenty years old! Maybe it was $350? It was in perfect condition and remained that way for as long as I, and my buddy, owned it. I would not realize how fantastic this particular amp was until decades later ...I naively thought all name brand amps sounded this good.
Unbeknownst to me, the Ampeg VH-140C became a quintessential brutal tone machine for death metal guitarists. During my ownership, I never got the tight, brutal crunch I wanted. I was kind of disappointed not finding the full-bodied chug (ala Metallica) from Channel A and made a few misguided effects purchases (Boss DS-1, Rocktron Gainiac, Zoom 505) that barely got me any closer to where I desired. However, the cleans (Channel B) were pristine and beautiful with nothing but an instrument cable and a ‘59 humbucker between the strings and the amp. Channel B was absolutely noiseless without sounding sterile and you could switch on the built-in high-quality reverb and chorus for something I remember as ethereal and angelic. I moved out of Pennsylvania at the end of 2000 and sold the Ampeg to my only guitar friend, Chad. He kept it for a while, but he was never really a metal guy. Eventually, he got into building his own tube amps and let the VH go.
I got back into guitar (again) and began wanting another VH-140C after looking them up and finding how revered they became for their monster gain and effects pedal-friendliness. I knew the cleans were amazing, but I was reading how brutal everyone said the thing could be. I started collecting vintage USA-made amplifiers in December 2018 and set my sights on that Ampeg nostalgia. I learned of the SS-140C in September 2019 and this broadened my Craigslist search, immediately stumbling onto a decent 1989 SS-140C with original footswitch that I drove 75mins to and haggled down from $280 to $220. Back home, I placed an Ibanez TS7 and an MXR M108 in the effects loop, then dimed the gain. Instantly, I had the tight, brutal tone I always wanted. My mistake as a kid was not buying an equalizer to fine-tune the signal for maximum chunkiness. A seagull EQ pattern on my M108 punched my signal up to the crisp, beefy palm-mutes that I once thought were impossible with this amp. The SS-140C also took the boost from the TS7 beautifully, making feather-light hammer-ons ring through as if they had been picked. Yes, tube amps are awesome, but the tight and responsive chug of a solid state amplifier is what my ears crave. And the stereo sound? God Mode! I became smitten and my beloved 1992 Peavey Ultra 120 wasn’t being played much anymore. By late 2019, I had also acquired a near-mint 1997 VH-140C head for $400. Shortly after that, I took up playing bass, sold the SS and Ultra, but kept the VH.The Evolution of the VH: In March 1986, SLM (St Louis Music, who had been producing Crate amps since 1978) acquired the Ampeg rights and inventory after Ampeg's previous owners had filed bankruptcy. By 1987, SLM was producing the new line of Ampegs, including the SS models for guitar. These were the predecessors to the VH series (Variable Harmonics) and they were very similar, with some years looking indistinguishable to the casual observer. The SS and VH amplifiers share power amps, but the VH received a slightly more brutal preamp than the SS, along with the patented Variable Harmonics circuits in an attempt to mimic vacuum tube characteristics. These guitar amplifiers have so many usable features packed into them that they are argurably the most versatile vintage USA-made solid state 2-channel amps you can score.
SS vs VH: Running them both through the stock speakers of the SS-140C combo, I seem to prefer the VH-140C. The VH gets super-brutal easier with lots of headroom left over - I set the gain around 6 on the VH, whereas I simply dime the SS. However, this difference does make for the SS to be a little more manageable and forgiving. The pots on the SS feel like they have a larger, smoother sweep, while the level and gain knobs on Channel A of the VH can seem less like dials and more like on-off switches. This is especially noticeable when my VH head is connected in stereo to my Carvin 412 cabinet: if the chorus is engaged while running higher gain levels on either channel, the volume increases dramatically. This occurs even though my Carvin 412 produces an 8ohm load per side (verified with a meter), just like the SS-140C combo. Oddly, my SS-140C combo seemed to do the opposite and lost a bit of volume when the chorus was engaged. Even odder, running the SS through the stereo 412 cab, the volume difference was almost negligible when the chorus was engaged. What the? Who knows?! In any case, you'll want to snag the AFP-3 footswitch for the VH to prevent accidentally bumping the volume up a fraction of a hair when switching channels in the bedroom (seriously, it will make Channel A ring your ears for a while).
The VH sounds slightly tighter and has a much more dynamic reverb and chorus. And by that, I'd swear these go to at least 11 when compared to the SS's effects and add a far more complex texture, likely assisted by the patented Variable Harmonic distortion circuit. This may be why my SS produced nicer, more natural sounding harmonics. It could just be my particular amps, but the reverb on my SS had more hiss than my VH, which gets more noticeable as it is dialed up - it is tolerable at my preferred 6, though. Could I have lived without the VH? Certainly, but this is nostalgia for me and I do like its tightness and stereo chorus better. I think the SS is a stellar and wallet-friendlier option for someone who isn't totally obsessed with the legendary VH mega-brootz. The SS seems slightly more genre-versatile due to the knob forgiveness and overall smoothness, nearly achieves the VH's apocalyptic-level crunch (especially with an EQ), and possesses that same beautiful clean channel. I have found both to be exceptionally pedal friendly.
STEREO RULES THEM ALL: As if the tone wasn't awesome enough for me, stereo with the chorus engaged is where these amplifiers really blew my mind all over my face. I generally consider myself a purist: I prefer 2D movies over 3D movies and I like my vintage stuff to look original. So, I almost naturally considered stereo to be somewhat of a gimmick. My old VH-140C combo and the SS-140C combo (both 8ohms; both open-back) sounded pretty good in stereo with the chorus. However, plugging my VH-140C head into my stereo-ready Carvin 412 closed-back slant-cab loaded with English-made Celestion G12S-50 speakers (running 8ohm per side in stereo) sent my ears into confused uber-bliss ...and the cab isn't even baffled to separate the dry and wet signals. I say "confused" because I cannot understand what wizardry could make it exponentially better than it already was. Maybe it's the closed-back cab, but in this configuration, the EQ wasn't even needed to get a really good tone out of it. I cannot put the sound into words - it is just incredible. If you have the combo, do yourself a favor and get a quality stereo-capable 412 (or add a mono 212) and an EQ pedal. For something uniquely spectacular, I ran an effects chain with this setup that included a DigiTech Drop (set to Oct+Dry) between the guitar and input, then my DigitTech Polara (set to Spring), and MXR M234 Analog Chorus in the loop - all this doubling beefed the texture up even more to sound like a giant, angry, beautiful robot. Any reviewer that says these amps lack dimension or decibels probably isn't running it stereo - I've seen this mistake a lot.
ALTERNATIVE AMPS TO THE VH-140C: For me, it is the simultaneous wet and dry signals that push the incredible tone to the next level, so I prefer something that has the stereo chorus. That would make the SS-70C and SS-140C the next best thing, with just a little less brutal of a preamp. Forgoing the additional circuitry of stereo awesomeness, the VH-150, the SS-70, or the SS-150 might be more reliable options. Frankly, without the stereo option engaged, I find the tone to be one-dimensional and uninspiring.
There are quite a few Crate heads and combos that possess a preamp that many claim sound very similar to the Ampeg VH-140C. Identifying reliable information is difficult, but the Crate GX-130C is the one that most often pops up as being the closest equivalent. It is said to be muddier (also described as “less focused”) than the Ampeg, but it does have the dual power amps with onboard chorus. The G130C XL and G40C XL seem to be very similar, also with stereo outputs and chorus. Following that, the VTX200S appears to be the latest dual-amp offering that might get you the stereo and chorus VH sound. The Crate XLP Preamp is supposedly the GX-130C preamp circuit in rackmount form, but you’d need a stereo power amplifier (or two power amps) to get the jaw-dropping wet/dry stereo effect.
Other Crate amplifiers that have been mentioned to contain preamps similar to the VH series, but are not stereo-capable, are the GTX3500 Tidalwave and VTX350. Those two models have DSP chorus circuits, but lack stereo, so there is no benefit to the onboard chorus circuit. There are two more amps that are rumored to have a VH-esque preamp, but do not have stereo or chorus, and they are the GT3500 Shockwave and the G1500. As mentioned, more reliability is a supposed benefit of a stereo-deficient alternative.
Note that a Crate model that ends with an “H” is a head version.
THE PEAVEY REVOLUTION! While searching for a Peavey bass preamp, I stumbled onto the ultra-rare Peavey Revolution solid state head. It appears Peavey took note of Ampeg's SS-140 and decided to make them more versatile and twice as poweful. These stereo-capable monsters produce 130watts per channel and have an impedance selector for each side. It uses a 3-button footswitch to control the digital reverbs, plus a 4-button for the remainder. The amp looks like pure insanity, though I have never heard one. Per the circuit layout, only one channel receives the chorus - as it should be. I'm also a nineties Peavey fanboy for their reliability and indestructibility, so I would love to get my hands on one to compare to the VH. Just know that these are not to be confused with their Revolution 112 combos released years later.
PEDALS: If stereo isn’t a priority (even though it should be to experience the true greatness), the best option might be running a VH-clone pedal into a power amp. There is the PLX FX Spirytus, SNK VHD, Master Effects Misanthrope, Berserker Dead Ringer, thiSHEAvyearth Flesh Rot (tweaked a bit; V2 has additional features; mono amp version available), GUPtech VeJ1, and Aion FX VH Drive Channel (PCB only) which all replicate the Variable Harmonic distortion circuit of the VH-140C's Channel A and can be used as preamps. These are popular and all are highly-rated alternatives for those not able to find, afford, or have room for an actual VH. I bought the PLX FX Spirytus pedal to try and I got a very accurate VH sound - albeit, it didn’t deliver me to Valhalla since the pedal lacks the simultaneous wet and dry signals of the real deal. Running the Spirytus between my guitar and my VH, I could not tell the difference between a dry Channel A on the head and the engaged pedal. Personally, the Flesh Rot would be the top of my list.
SPEAKERS: One thread that I saw claimed an SLM rep from the 1990's stated that any Crate or Ampeg combo/cabinet that didn't have Celestions in it from the factory, had speakers outsourced through Eminence. Early Crate models may have just had "Custom L" printed on the Eminence-made speaker. The speakers in my SS-140C combo have "Ampeg Custom Speaker - SLM Electronics" printed on the label. Per the manual, the combo listed as model VH-140C came with G12K-85 Celestions, whereas the VH-140CA model came with the standard Ampeg Customs (again, manufactured by Eminence). Remember that the "C" stood for chorus and not Celestion.
CrankyGypsy (established 2001)