Brutality, Convenience, Simplicity
Our conveniently-sized guitarist reviews a conveniently-sized amp from the tone maestros at Victory Amplification. Spoiler- they’re both are a bit mad & noisy.
“If I had any reservations about you getting a new amp… they were smashed this evening.”
Barend Chamberlain – our damn vocalist
It’s true- when a band’s been playing together for a while, you grow comfortable in your battle-tested sound, and your bandmates are justified in approaching any changes to a tried-and-true formula with trepidation.
I’d been coveting the Victory VX Kraken for a long time, but you can’t buy Victory Amplification in South Africa. Of course, one could import one- but then you can’t try before you buy. I’d survived months of lusting after the amplifier, but after a particularly difficult period at work, I was sitting at home with some much-deserved free time and some cash to spare, and a lapse in self-restraint pushed me over the edge. My Kraken was ordered and on the way.
Before I continue, I’d like to acknowledge the SA Post Office imports department and EMS- the amp was safely in my hands within two days of being cleared from customs. I’m hoping to have something up on the topic of importing musical gear in the near future.
Now, back to the Kraken.
I was drawn to the Kraken for a few reasons:
- Firstly, it was an incredibly brutal amp that was purpose-built for downtuning.
- Secondly, it was incredibly compact, yet boasted a compliment of “full-size” power tubes, instead of the typical EL84s of most lunchbox amps.
- Lastly, it was simple.
I’m going to use these three points as my topics of review.
The Kraken makes no apologies about being a metal amp. While the Kraken isn’t a true one-trick pony, it’s purpose is clear. I, however, am a one-trick pony, so it made sense to get an amp with laser-focus on metal tone.
I’m going to explore the Kraken’s simplicity later, but the fact that a boost pedal isn’t a requirement (with some provisos- more on that later) is a large draw for me. Fewer pedals, fewer cables, less to go wrong, less to carry to gigs.
In terms of tone, the amp is not structured like most amps. Instead of two channels, it instead offers two “voices” and two master volumes. These can be used in unison to act like a two-channel amp, but the former option allows for added tonal flexibility.
The first gain voice is more mellow and rounded, influenced by the Marshall JCM900. While the Kraken technically has no clean channel, this is the channel of choice to get cleaner tones. At lower gain, it cleans up nicely, but can still be pushed into breakup by hot pickups or even a conservative boost pedal. This means that you’ll probably find yourself stabbing at your boost or volume control to clean up your sound, or setting the gain so low as to require using one of the master volumes to boost the volume to compensate.
The first gain channel, of course, distorts well, getting gritty throughout the middle settings, with absolute maximum gain being required for any kind of “brutal” tone.
I found a very enjoyable high-gain tone, suitable for metal rhythm and leads, but it did require a TC Electronic Spark to boost it and brighten the tone.
The second gain structure is the moneymaker. I’ve spent every single moment of my live performances in this voice, but I’ve already informed you of my diminutive equine nature, so no surprises there.
This channel, based on the venerable Peavey 5150, is middy, angry, and is almost all-crunch, except on the absolute lowest of gain settings. It can clean up with some volume knob work, but Gain I is best fit for that purpose.
Depending on how aggressively you play, you can get full rhythm tones from halfway up the gain dial. I have a more meticulous, light touch, so I’m usually between 6 and 7.
An unfortunate aspect of this is that the preamp becomes very noisy once you go beyond 6 or so on the second voice’s gain knob. An audible hum becomes very present during breaks in guitarwork, necessitating something like an ISP Decimator to filter out that noise, unless you want to switch your amp to Gain I when your vocalist gets chatty between songs. This is fine, but I’m a buffoon, so I’ve forgotten to switch back to Gain II once or twice.
That said, this voice is pure gold. At first, I scooped mids very aggressively, out of habit from my Peavey 3120. Victory’s amp offers control over very sweet midrange of the audible spectrum, and the amp loves to have it’s mids brought to the fore. It rounds out and saturates the tone without becoming piercing.
This, of course, means that the amp cuts through the mix like nothing else. I’m using less volume but can hear myself more clearly than ever before. Not that the VX Kraken is lacking in the volume department- it has no problem keeping up with any full-size amplifier.
The gain structure is deceptive at first- it’s lower registers aren’t as crunched as it’s mids and highs, so scooping those out will lead to a less “wet” distortion, which concerned me at first. After sitting down to build a rapport with the Kraken, I understand my folly. At times I do find myself wondering if I’ve lost some saturation by moving on from my other amps, but it’s always been when playing quietly at home, right in front of the amp. I’ve never felt I needed more gain in a loud/live environment, so I guess it’s just an oddity of the Kraken’s circuitry.
The amp needs little tweaking from 12 o’clock on all EQs to sound great- minor tweaks just add garnish to a great sound. I find myself running bass and mids at 5 with treble at 6 or so. If playing at home or wanting slightly more scoop, I might take mids down to 4 or so, and treble can go up to 7 without becoming too much.
The bass, due to it’s cleaner nature, remains tight and percussive throughout. Hitting the bass focus switch on the back exaggerates this even more, but I tend to use it with consideration of the venue, rather than an always-on affair. If the room fills with bass from my PSordid compatriots, I will happily use it to focus my tone, as I’ve always preferred less bass in my sound. If we need to shake the room that little bit more, I have no qualms about deactivating it.
Overall, the Kraken has cemented itself as my absolute favourite metal tone- I’ve played and/or owned several metal amps, including the usual suspects from Peavey (6505+, 3120), a Krank Rev, and a Mesa Mark V. All great amps, but the Victory VX Kraken’s Gain II channel brings the heaviest punch, the tightest response, and powerful yet controlled aggression.
While both channels are very tasty, I do find that reaching a happy setting on Gain II usually results in a very bass-heavy Gain I tone, which I find tough to use for anything but a clean tone. A treble-focussed boost aids this, however.
Speaking of boosts, I would also have appreciated more gain on tap for Gain I, since it gets very nice rhythm tones once boosted, but isn’t quite in extreme-metal territory without help.
I can run a boost every easily, but adding the boost in Gain II really pushes the aforementioned preamp hum over the top, and I’d rather not get too aggressive with my noise gates. With some tap-dancing, this is alleviated, but I’m not much of a dancer.
Convenience, for the gigging musician, is a serious consideration. Moving heavy gear is hard on you, hard on your car, and hard on the gear itself. You set a heavy amp down harder, it moves with more inertia while shifting around in the boot, and even a beefy man will be cumbersome with one. A small amp like this one is effortless to transport and set up, especially with the included carry bag.
The Kraken offers several output settings – 50 watts in high power mode and 8 watts in low power mode. Both are, of course, very loud, and while I still find myself using high power mode at gigs, I seldom need to turn up beyond 11 o’clock or so.
There is also an option to switch to single-ended mode, which offers 1 watt and 0.3 watts in high- and low-power mode respectively. These do offer far lower volumes, but thin out the tone and loses a touch of that laser-focus. Not a concern when you’re noodling at home, though.
These modes are still loud enough to annoy the neighbours. The Kraken really thickens up and saturates at higher master volumes I find, so I would hesitate to call this a bedroom amp. I do use it at home, but you’re not getting the full package when you’re under 2 or 3 out of 10 on the master volume. It sounds fine, but it’s not at it’s best. This amp wants it’s valves to breathe!
Another concern for gigging musicians is output impedance. The Kraken offers a single 16 ohm output and dual 8 ohm outputs, which should cater to at least one of a venue’s house cabs. Only once did I ever need to use 4 ohm mode on my Peavey, and it was only because the house cab’s 16 ohm input was broken.
Footswitching caters for most of your needs- the Kraken only comes with one footswitch, but the amp does offer two footswitch inputs, utilizing regular stereo audio jacks. One can switch between gain channels and master volumes, while the other can toggle the FX loop, and offers a “blowout” switch, which will kick you to gain II & master II, no matter where you currently stand.
Although significantly more costly, I could have bought a Kemper- but I knew that I would never again play the guitar, because I’d fiddle with settings & obsess over which amp to use for the rest of my life.
I’ve grown to know that I want to plug in, turn at most 4 knobs, and jam. The Kraken offers this- not only does it forgo any esoteric options, it’s difficult to get a poor sound at any sane EQ setting- and only a minute’s tweaking produces the greatest of tones. Some players demand infinite tweakability, but for the rest of us, this is an important consideration, especially when you’re given no more than fourteen seconds to set up before your set.
The shared EQ does present it’s challenges. Fortunately, I almost exclusively use Gain II, but I might use Gain I if it were voiced to be more in line with Gain II’s EQ preferences. While neither offer channel-specific EQ, the 6505MH’s multitude of front-panel controls and the 5150LBX’s concentric control knobs prove that there would have been space to offer a “sweep” knob of some kind to alter the voicing of one of the channels to make it work for you, without the need for full per-channel EQ controls. A minor gripe that doesn’t put me off the amp, but something to consider. You may well find that you can find a happy medium between the two, but I personally struggle to do so.
My other criticism on this front would be the omission of presence & resonance knobs. I love these options for tuning an amp to a venue, and do wonder what the dials would do for the Kraken, but it’s not a deal-breaker in any way- in fact, mandating the presence (lol) of presence & resonance knobs could well have forced the Kraken to outgrow it’s lunchbox form-factor, which would have been a dealbreaker for me.
The Kraken does have it’s challenges. The twin channels use the shared EQs too differently, and it’s first gain channel would benefit from just a teaspoon more gain. It’s also got a noisy preamp in Gain II, and it’s easy to find it missing some saturation at volumes safe for home use.
That said, it’s loud enough for any venue, while being smaller & lighter than even a mid-sized pedalboard. It offers the single best brutal tone I’ve ever heard, while retaining wondrously taught bass response in very low tunings. Most of all, it’s a gigging metalhead’s amp, because of it’s useable, cutting midrange standing out in a band setting without becoming harsh.
I heartily recommend the Victory VX Kraken, it’s my perfect amplifier for live use. It’s not just me justifying my purchase- I’ve had more compliments in the past two shows than I have in the previous 8 months of gigging. If, like me, you can overlook it’s few compromises, Victory Amplification’s VX Kraken offers one of the best metal packages that the gigging metal musician can buy today.
Disclaimer: The manufacturer made no request for review, I was not provided any payment or recompense for this review, and the Victory VX Kraken was purchased with my own damn money. I wouldn’t turn down gear for review, but the scientists who made me caution that even free gear cannot guarantee a positive opinion. Proceed with caution, bright colours help.