In an effort to bridge the divide between tube and digital guitar amplifiers, MI Audio has created the Flex SmartAmp, a tube-driven, analog guitar amplifier that can be controlled using an iDevice.

Ever since its inception, the digital or "modeling" guitar amplifier has caused a great deal of debate amongst players. On one hand, a digital amp gives you versatility, with a multitude of emulated amp "models" and tones that can be dialed up within seconds. A regular vacuum tube amp is far less versatile, but purists will argue that the warm tube-sound it produces can never be replicated by digital modeling.

The Flex SmartAmp is not a digital modeling amp. Instead, it uses pure analog circuitry that can be controlled digitally by the user.

“Instead of thinking
 of Flex SmartAmp as an amplifier, think of it as a library of all of the different components needed to build an amplifier," explains Michael Ibrahim, the amp’s inventor. "Inside the amplifier there are banks of resistors, capacitors, switches, potentiometers and most importantly vacuum tubes. It is all sitting there waiting to be used; you just need to tell it HOW they are to be used.”

By using an iPad or other iOS device, the user can control all of these components through a multi-touch platform that is replicated on the 22-inch front screen of the SmartAmp.

“When choosing an amplifier via the iPad, or similar device, it sends a series of instructions to Flex SmartAmp telling it how to build the required circuit, be it a single ended push-pull amplifier, cathode, fixed-biased, or even mixed-biased,” says Ibrahim.

Essentially what this gives you is access to almost every type of amplifier ever created – and the ability to "build" your own unique amp through the iOS platform. Every minute detail right down to the power supply and how hot or cold you run your vacuum tubes can be saved to your handheld device, and then dialed up again at a moment’s notice.

All data is stored on the iOS device rather than in the amp, an aspect likely to appeal to guitarists both on tour and in the studio. The idea is that a touring guitarist can keep all of their presets stored in their portable device and simply hire a Flex SmartAmp for the show. The same principal applies when recording. Instead of lugging several amps to the studio, players can "build" the desired settings into the iOS platform and then use the SmartAmp on each track.

The Flex SmartAmp is currently in prototype form and according to Michael Ibrahim, is likely to undergo some radical changes before being released to the public.

“Imagine the front of the amplifier being completely taken up by the screen, or integrating the amplifier design tools into the amplifier itself as a Schematics Editor," says Ibrahim. "Our plan for the Schematics Editor gives users the internal workings of the amplifier on the screen with the ability to edit, modify or create from scratch your own dream amplifier.”

There is no word yet on how much the Flex SmartAmp will cost when it hits the market, but considering the craftsmanship that has gone into the prototype it probably won’t be cheap. The good news is that the company is also working on the Mini Flex, a scaled-down (and cheaper) version of the SmartAmp that utilizes hybrid digital-analog technology while still retaining a valve signal path.

The Flex SmartAmp was due to premiere in January at the Winter NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show. Unfortunately for MI Audio and those wanting to take a closer look, the SmartAmp prototype was held up at U.S. customs and didn't make it to the show.

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