Roland Cube 20

Roland Cube 20
Roland's current range of Cube amplifiers are COSM-based and feature a host of DSP effects. They are favoured by many a new guitarist for home practise and are a common sight at the feet of buskers all around the world. Back in the 1970s and 80s, the humble Roland Cube was something altogether different.

The particular model here is the Cube 20: a small, solid state, 20 watt combo with an 8" speaker - made in Japan in the 1980s. Here are the main conrols and features:

  • Two inputs; 'Normal' and 'Overdrive' (but no channel switching)
  • Volume (input level/gain)
  • Master Volume
  • Reverb (level)
  • Bass, Middle and Treble EQ control
  • On/Off toggle switch
  • Headphone Output (which disables the speaker)

Depending on which input you use, the amp has a slightly different overall character.

Using the 'Normal' input the amp is very clean with quite a round sound. Turning the 'Volume' (gain) up doesn't really change the sound in any way (other than boosting the level, obviously), but towards the top of its range, there is a subtle-but-noticeable compression taking place.

The 'Overdrive' input is much the same but much louder. Turning it up doesn't do a lot (in terms of adding distortion) and the amp stays pretty clean until near the top of its range when it starts to distort. [The point at - and the extent to - which it distorts will depend upon the instrument and its output level.] Even with the gain all the way up, there isn't a great deal of distortion - I'd say it's comparable to a low-gain overdrive pedal such as a Barber LTD. The Cube 20's overdrive is fairly un-compressed and a little lacking in sustain. [NOTE: To get the most overdrive out of this amp, you need to crank up the gain AND tone controls.]

Cube 20

I have to admit that I don't really like the way this amp breaks up. It sounds quite 'cheap' to me. The good news though, is that the 'Overdrive' channel - with the gain up to 5 or 6 - produces a nice jangly clean sound.

I always think it's a good sign when you can put all the controls at halfway and it sounds good, as is the case with this amp. Although - as is the tendency with combos equipped with small speakers - there is a pronounced midrange focus, so I tend to roll the mids back a little to get a more balanced, pleasing tone.

One noteworthy - and surprising - addition is the built in reverb; it's really good. I've used small amps before where the reverb was often terrible and made me wonder why it was even included. The Cube 20's reverb is a delight; it's dead quiet and almost splashy enough to satisfy the most ardent of surf-freaks... and it's usable at any setting. The Cube 20's reverb is more than a match for most reverb pedals I've used.

The Cube 20 has a lot of Roland's famed Jazz Chorus character (less the chorus part, obviously) and for someone like me, where having a good clean sound is of paramount importance, this is a fine little amp.

How does the Cube 20 take pedals?

In short: with mixed results.

It takes all of the modulation and delay pedals I've tried with it beautifully; the clean-ness of the amp making a great platform to work from. But, as the Cube 20's overdrive is barely worth talking about, there is little choice but to use pedals for any dirty tones you want.

This is where things may get complicated. Of course, it's purely subjective and a matter of personal taste but already I've concluded - not surprisingly, given the amp's midrange focus - that mid-heavy pedals are out of the question.

Using an old tubescreamer-alike, I gave up pretty quickly. It was just too nasal and brought out a brittle quality in the speaker. I persevered long enough with my early 90s Rat 2 to get a passable sound; but that was still a bit too raw and biting.

The next thing to try was my Award-Session JD10. This has a 3-band EQ section, so I was able to dial the mids down on the pedal to get a very nice natural break-up and (upping the gain) full-on overdrive and distortion. Turning down the mids further I could get a surprisingly big, heavy, scooped sound. (Not that I'm in the habit of doing such things!)

The key to success seems to be to avoid mid-heavy overdrives, such as tubescreamer-derived pedals (as my initially experiences suggested), but almost anything else seems fair game.

The Cube 20 is perhaps happiest with tonally 'transparent' overdrive pedals or with distortions and - especially - fuzzes. This little amp can sound BIG with the right effects.

As with many solid state amps, the addition of some subtle compression will help improve the overall 'feel' when playing the amp clean, as it will smooth out the strong transient peaks that can occur at times.

Choral Music

The original Roland Cube series consisted of various sized amps to suit instruments from guitars to keyboards, and for use anywhere from your bedroom to an arena stage.

There was also the Cube Chorus range (Cube 40 Chorus pictured) which incorporated Roland's trademark chorus circuit. The chorus settings were preset (no continuous control) but took you a step closer to Roland's flagship Jazz Chorus range.