Other than the Gainiac I have various effects processors , Carvin Quad X tube Preamp, Yamaha PG1 preamp, and 5150 head. It's definitely on the low-end compared to the other amp choices available to me. If you want heavy, but not neccessarily modern high gain distortion real cheap, get one of these on eBay I think you'll be pleased. What I don't like about it is the lack of tonal variety. You really get only ONE distortion tone, the EQ works as expected, but there's no tone shaping whatsoever. You'll need to run it into a separate graphic or parametric EQ or sound enhancer (Aural exciter, BBE) for tone shaping. It annoyingly lacks a clean channel volume control and it actually lacks a power switch, so you'll likely just use a powerstrip switch in its place - it uses a "wall-wart" type transformer. If my Gainiac were lost or stolen, I wouldn't bother buying another as I have far better gear available.
Model Year: 1997
Where Obtained: ebay
It features 2 channels, though for some reason it lacks a volume control for the clean channel. If you want to actually use it as a 2 channel preamp you'll need the optional footswitch and you'll need to dial in your clean volume using your poweramp volume control first and then adjust the Gainiac drive channel volume accordingly. It uses a single 12AX7 tube which does seem to effect the sound (some say it's just for show). I've had to replace the tube and the distortion characteristics (more gain) changed when I put in a new tube. It's a really basic preamp, no midi or anything like that. The input/output plugs are all plastic and are secured with plastic nuts. The controls are basic: bass, mid (Sweep), treble, volume and gain for Drive channel. Clean channel simply has Bass and treble controls. You can switch the channels using the little channel button on the front of the unit or a standard one-button footswitch.
These units seem to go for dirt cheap on eBay, but they actually don't sound too shabby. It's not really a high gain preamp and its distortion is nothing like say a MetalZone. But it does have a pretty decent tube-like distortion. At the price they're going for on eBay (well under $100) I think they're quite a nice value. You can get a pretty heavy distortion, appropriate for 80's metal, and really not that far off from Slayer type distortion, definitely no where near the articulation or cut of a Marshall though. The scoop (midrange control) could have been better designed as less than half of its rotation range results in a useable tone. Best to keep it between 9 and 1 o'clock range, or the tone will turn to thin. For the $51 I paid, I can't compain. The Drive channel gain range goes from slightly broken up, then quickly jumps to saturated, but smooth distortion. At the 12 O'clock position you're essetionally getting all the gain you're going to get from it, after that it just seems to get noisier. You will not get Mesa Recto type gain, not even close. More like Marshall, but very compressed, and has a sort of engaged wah like characteristic which I find fairly annoying.
At under $100 I think it's a nice buy just for its decent tube-like distortion. At over $100 there are far better choices like the legendary ADA MP1/MP2 or Peavey Rockmaster. Also look into the Rocktron Pro-GAP, they tend to be highly regarded.
Well, it's about as simple as a preamp gets - a no-brainer to use.
Well it's a rack unit so it should be sitting in a rack case. In a rack case I think it'll be safe, doesn't appear to be fragile. I can imagine the input/output plugs could break being that they're plastic, but I wouldn't worry about it. I've had a tube go out on it, but that happens. I would not be overly worried about its reliability at a gig, a decent quality tube should last years in this unit.