The Hughes & Kettner Red Box was introduced back in the days when Stock, Aitken and Waterman ruled the UK charts, and the popular face of rock was represented by the likes of Taylor Dayne (remember her?). It was 1988, and technology had moved on significantly since the 1970s, largely forgetting, however, to take the world of electric guitars with it. There were some good new ideas emerging in guitar-focused products, but the kind of convenience keyboardists had been enjoying in studios across the nation was still noticeably absent from the average guitarist’s life. If you wanted a good rock guitar sound, you needed a guitar amp, and to record it, you had to mic up the speaker – dealing with all the hassle of placement, EQ, etc.
The reasons for this were fundamentally to do with the way distortion is affected by a guitar amp’s speaker. Guitar speakers don’t reproduce the whole frequency range of the amp’s output sound. Above the region of around 6,000 Hz, the high treble is effectively blocked. In hi-fi terms this is a disaster, but it’s perfect for an overdriven guitar, because the sound is heavily distorted. The high frequencies in a distorted tone are the ones which make it sound cheap – like a wasp buzzing away. But filter them out, and you’re left with the desirable elements of the distortion. The thickening effect, the body, the crunch, and the singing sustain on single notes. So whereas keyboardists could take a direct feed from their instrument’s output jack to a studio mixer, guitarists still had to do things the traditional way, with a microphone. The simple idea behind the Red Box, was to allow guitarists to link their amps directly to a mixing desk, without the wasp-like highs, and without all the unpredictability of mic placement. It would transform the raw output from the amp, into a controlled input signal for the desk, which sounded like it was coming from a miked-up guitar speaker. If the guitarist was using a valve amp, the Red Box would additionally allow the valves to be driven hard, without necessarily blasting unacceptable volume out into the environment.
Of course, this was not the first time someone had created a direct injection translator for a guitarist. Far from it. However, in general, previous DI boxes had tended to be aimed at PA companies, studio owners and such. The Red Box was pitched straight at the guitarist, and promoted quite heavily in the guitar magazines. The marketing was also very clear. The marketing for previous devices appeared to make assumptions that the potential customer knew what the product did, when often I’m sure they didn’t have a clue. I’d been playing for about five years when the Red Box arrived, and this was the first time I’d noticed anything which performed this particular task. I noticed the product because it was bright red. I ‘got’ it because the ads fully and properly explained what it did.
All this of course predated the era of effects units with built-in speaker simulators. Even the new Boss ME-5 guitar multi-effects unit, which also arrived in 1988, had no hint of a speaker simulator, and still had to feed into a guitar amp for a decent rock sound. So when it first hit the shops, the Red Box was a new proposition to many guitarists. A standalone speaker simulator, at a time when very few guitarists were knowingly using any kind of speaker emulation technique.
The Red Box came in a red box. Not just the unit’s casing – it was actually sold in a red cardboard box too. The idea was that you disconnected your guitar amp’s speaker from the speaker jack, and linked the speaker jack to the ‘Speaker IN’ on the Red Box, using a standard guitar lead. If you wished to use the amp speaker as a monitor, you could connect it to the Red Box’s ‘Through’ socket. Some guitarists liked to mic up the amp’s speaker as well as using the Red Box, so the ‘Through’ socket was important. Next, you popped a mic off the end of its XLR lead, and plugged the lead’s XLR connector into the Red Box’s ‘Sym. Line OUT’ socket. Finally, you connected the other end of the XLR lead to an input on the mixing desk, discarded the mic, and your setup was ready to use.
One of the biggest problems with gadgets such as this was that you could rarely try before you bought. Guitar shops, or guitar departments, were seldom integrated with studio equipment setups, so there wouldn’t be any facility to properly demo the unit. I had to buy on trust. Was that trust rewarded?…
Bluntly, If I had been able to demo the unit, I very much doubt I’d have bought it. It did (and still does) what H&K claimed it did. But it didn’t give me the sound I was expecting. Even though I wanted the offensive highs removed from the tone, I still wanted a good level of brightness. Perhaps not quite as bright as a typical Marshall tone, but heading that way. The Red Box, however, was much more Mesa/Boogie in its rendition. Thick and warm, but with very little poke at the 6K end of the spectrum. I was disappointed when I bought the device, but kept it on the basis that there was little else in the way of guitar speaker emulation available. As time went on, my tastes broadened, and I do appreciate the Red Box more today than I did in the late ‘80s.
I experimented with it quite recently, and I think now I know a lot more about recording techniques and gear in general, I’m able to get more out of it than I could in the beginning. But compared with the all-in-one convenience provided by more modern guitar effects units, the Red Box is a pain, and nowhere near as versatile. The hassle of having to mess with multiple leads, find a 9 volt battery, ‘fit’ the battery (which involves removing the Red Box’s bottom plate – four screws!), find an amp, disconnect the speaker, and then dial in some wild EQ settings on the mixer, is impractical when you can just plug into a simple one-step solution which links straight to the mixer and does the lot. I haven’t tried more recent incarnations of the Red Box, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone spends more than a few quid on this original version. Even in its day, it was never a ‘gobsmacker’.
If you want a piece of ‘studio jewellery’ to chat about with tech-trainspotters, one of these might be worth tracking down. Otherwise, save the few quid and get a nice takeaway instead.
Posted by: Bob Leggitt