Balthazar Film Noir 50 Review
Author: Joe Gore
February 01, 2019
♦ The Film Noir 50 is inspired by British beat, psychedelic, and instrumental sounds of the early 1960’s, with robust construction and features which allow it to summon dynamic modern sounds at almost any stage volume.
♦ Whether you want an amp that can go from jangly spank to thick lead with a mere turn of your guitar’s volume knob, a soulful single channel pedal platform, or an amp that ranges from clean to dirty depending entirely on the force of your picking, the Film Noir 50 delivers expressive dynamic tone, courtesy of the rules~be~damned approach to amplifier design that dominated the early days of rock ’n’ roll.
Power: 50 Watts, Fixed Bias, 110/220V Operation
♦ GZ34 Rectifier Tube
♦ 2x EL34 Power Tubes
♦ 2x 12AX7 Preamp Tubes
Single Channel: Volume, Treble, Bass
Power Section: Master Volume, Cut
♦ Since the ’60s, Pink Floyd has exerted a profound influence on guitarists’ gear choices: Big Muffs, Echorecs, black Strats, Hiwatt amps.… You get the picture.
♦ But those items were all popularized by David Gilmour. We don’t hear as much about the gear favored by the band’s original guitarist and frontman, Syd Barrett, who left the group in 1968 due to severe mental illness. You can buy a zillion replicas of Gilmour’s Big Muff, but as far as I know, the only folks regularly reproducing Barrett’s (alleged) fuzz pedal, the Selmer Buzz Tone, are Jext Telez, a boutique company from Michigan. And you generally don’t hear gearheads rhapsodizing about the Selmer Truvoice Treble ’N’ Bass 50, the amp Barrett used on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Floyd’s sole pre-Gilmour studio album.
Keeping It Weird
♦ Thanks to Chicago~based amp maker Balthazar de Ley, we have a chance to revisit this historic yet largely forgotten model. Balthazar, who for years maintained the mountains of gear owned by the Smashing Pumpkins, based his Film Noir 50 head on the Syd Selmer. It’s not a pure clone — the original had both treble and bass channels, and only the former is replicated here. De Ley added a master volume control and a Vox~style treble~cut knob in the power stage. He also re~voiced the preamp to, in his words, “warm it up a bit and make it more pedal~friendly.”
♦ Like early~’60s Marshalls, the Treble ’N’ Bass is more than a little “inspired” by Fender’s Bassman. Yet de Ley retained Selmer’s oddest deviation from the Fullerton template: a power~supply section the employs a choke the size of an output transformer. “For reasons I can only guess at,” notes Balthazar, “they made the unusual decision to set up the amp’s power supply with all of the so~called B+ voltage passing through the amp’s choke. The result is a particular kind of sag and bloom that I think defines the amp. Normally the choke is the smallest transformer on your amp, but in this case it has to handle so much current because of the oddball design, and has to be as large as the other transformers. It’s heavy, it’s expensive, and at NAMM shows it leaves other amp designers shaking their heads.”
♦ It interacts with distortion pedals in endlessly cool and fascinating ways, spawning an unholy menagerie of splats and squawks.
♦ I’ve never played an original, and didn’t know much about the amp till now. For example, when I unboxed the review model, I wondered why Balthazar covered it in a faux~alligator material reeking of ’90s hair metal. That shows you how little I knew: The early~’60s originals were also garbed in similar mock~’gator. So, for reference, I plugged in and played along with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
♦ Oh yeah! Film Noir 50 definitely nails the Syd sound.
♦ Film Noir’s core voice is rough~edged and throaty. The amp doesn’t have vast reserves of clean headroom. It can get clean, but not ultra~sparkly. Its distorted tones, while attractive, max out well short of meltdown, at least without upstream distortion. (More on that in a moment.) The idiosyncratic power supply circuit does indeed add saggy warmth. It’s a cool and distinctive sound, if not a particularly versatile one.
♦ Two EL34 tubes provide Film Noir’s power, with a pair of 12AX7s in the preamp section. The rectifier tube is a GZ34. Inside and out, the workmanship is top~notch. The amp is handwired. The small caps and resistors are tidily assembled on turret board. The wire routing is neat. The soldering is stellar. This amp looks like it will last a long time, and it’ll be easy to service should something go wrong. The parts — including Classic Tone and Hammond transformers — are top~drawer.
♦ Tones can be a bit on the wooly side compared to early~’60s Marshall, Fender, and Vox designs, but rolling back the bass control adds clarity. You might not even notice the absence of dedicated midrange knobs. Between the treble dial and the added top~cut pot, you’ve got much control over the highs. For the first audio clip, I plugged a DIY guitar with vintage~style PAFs directly into the amp. The clip includes maximum~clean and maximum~dirty examples.
Take Up Thy Fuzz Pedal and Squawk
♦ Film Noir’s high~gain settings may be relatively restrained, but that leaves a lot of room to shape tones with fuzz pedals. I auditioned Film Noir with a stack of fuzz boxes, and the flavor of each pedal came through loud and clear, as heard in the second audio clip. For the first minute of audio, I play a DIY clone of a Selmer Buzz Tone clone — a primitive design with three germanium transistors that runs at three volts via a pair of AA batteries. The remaining examples feature an assortment of homemade fuzzes.
♦ Film Noir is definitely not “a clean platform for effects,” in the usual sense of that contemporary tone cliché. It’s too dirty and saggy for that. But damn, it interacts with distortion pedals in endlessly cool and fascinating ways, spawning an unholy menagerie of splats and squawks. This amp loves fuzz.
♦ The Film Noir 50 is a cool and quirky amp. You’ll find no fault with Balthazar’s expert craftsmanship.The question, really, is whether this oddball speaks your musical language. (Hint: If you dig vintage psychedelia and fuzz sounds unfit for polite company, you’re likely to love it.) Yeah, you can probably pick up a functioning original for less than the price of this boutique spinoff — early Selmers are not über~collectible. (Not yet, anyway.) But Film Noir offers improvements on the original design, with greater range and superb build quality. The price isn’t over the top for a fine and unique handwired amp.
Pros: Beautifully made. Authentic early Floyd tones. Loves fuzz pedals.
Cons: Limited tonal range. Original Selmers might cost less.
Ease of Use: 5
♦ San Francisco~based Senior Contributing Editor Joe Gore has recorded with Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Tracy Chapman, Courtney Love, Marianne Faithfull, Les Claypool, Flea, DJ Shadow, John Cale, and many other artists. His music appears in many films and TV shows, plus an incriminating number of jingles. Joe has written several thousand articles about music and musicians and has contributed to many musical products, including Apple’s Logic and GarageBand programs. In his spare time Joe produces the Joe Gore line of guitar effects and edits a geeky guitar blog (https://tonefiend.com/).