By incorporating a power attenuator like
this model from Jim Kelley, guitarists can
soak up excess cranked-amp volume
without diminishing their desired tone.
Using an amp shield, like this AmpPac 32
from ClearSonic, is an easy fix for controlling
loud stage volume and preserving the hearing
of your front-row audience members.
“Turn it down!” Guitarists have been
hearing this command since Leo
Fender introduced the Broadcaster in 1948.
But as guitarists, we know that tube amps
just sound better when you turn them up
and really move some air. Unfortunately,
everyone from the local club owner to your
lead singer to your mom just doesn’t seem
to care—for them, it’s simply “too loud.”
The good news is that today, there are plenty
of great options out there for controlling
stage volume. So for this month’s column,
let’s talk about a few of them.
Low-power amps. It seems that the
small, low-power, “lunch box” amps are all
the rage lately. There’s a huge assortment
of them out there, such as the Mesa Mini
Rectifier, Traynor DarkHorse, Marshall’s
50th Anniversary 1-watt series, and the
Orange Terror series heads and combos.
These little amps pack a ton of great features
and tones into a small package, and could be
just the ticket for gigs where low volume is
a priority. Of course, lower-power heads and
combos have always been a great option for
guitarists concerned about decibels and portability,
especially when gigging in small venues.
But having recently noticed a number
of guitarists on big stages using low-power
amps, I believe there’s a trend happening
here. Guitarists have discovered that a low-power
amp that’s cranked to its sweet spot
can sound massive when mic’d through a
big PA system. My pal Brian Ray, who plays
with Paul McCartney, is just one example.
He uses his signature Divided by 13 BTR 23
amp with a 2x12 cabinet for big arena stages.
It’s a killer Marshall-inspired design, but at
23 watts, it keeps the volume to a dull roar.
It may be that a bigger, 50- to 100-watt
head is what floats your boat. Following are
a number of options for keeping the bigger
volume under control.
Speakers. The more speakers you use,
the more air you will move. So, simply
using fewer speakers will help reduce your
stage volume, but you have to be careful
not to exceed your speaker-wattage rating.
The sensitivity rating of each speaker is also
an important consideration. For example, a
Celestion Vintage 30—with a sensitivity rating
of 100 dB—will seem significantly louder
at the same amp settings than a Celestion
Heritage G12M Greenback, which has a 96
dB sensitivity rating. We aren’t talking about
a reduction from ear-splitting to bedroom
volume here, but if knocking a few dBs off
to get your stage volume under control is a
concern, a speaker with a lower sensitivity
rating can be helpful.
Master volumes. Most guitarists understand
that a master volume reduces the signal
coming from the preamp prior to going
into the power section, thus reducing volume.
Turning down the master will lower
your volume, but you might sacrifice some
tone in the process since a big part of our
tone can come from driving the power section
of an amp. But, not all master volumes
are created equal. The post-phase-inverter
master volume (aka PPIMV) has recently
become popular with some amp builders,
because it comes after the phase inverter in
the amp circuit, which is technically part of
the power amp. So, when you crank up the
preamp gain, you’re also driving the phase
inverter hard, which contributes greatly to
that cranked-up, power-amp tone.
Attenuators. A power attenuator can be a
huge asset when trying to reduce the volume
of a cranked-up tube amp. By patching an
attenuator in between the amplifier output
and speaker cabinet, the attenuator absorbs
some of the output and reduces the volume
accordingly. There are a number of models
available on the market and most have handy
features like line outs to drive effects or a slave
amp. Personally, I use the Jim Kelley and the
Aracom PRX150-DAG power attenuators.
The Kelley has a footswitch which allows
you to bypass it, just in case you do want to
blast at full volume for a solo boost, while
the Aracom has the nice feature of adjustable
impedance, so you can safely match an amplifier
with a 4 Ω output to a 16 Ω cabinet.
Amp shields and baffles. Joe Bonamassa
is a terrific guitarist who likes to play loud.
To deflect the intense beam of sound that
can come from a cranked 4x12 and avoid
deafening the fans in the first 10 rows at his
shows, Joe started using plastic amp shields
in front of his speaker cabinets. In fact, he
even has a signature model amp shield with
the JB-4 from ClearSonic.
Slaving and speaker simulators. Rush’s
Alex Lifeson uses powerful tube heads, but
he runs them into Palmer PDI-03 speaker
simulator/load boxes. These devices allow
a guitarist to crank a tube amp into “the
zone,” and then safely reduce the output
from the amp to line level. The PDI-03
also processes the line out signal and adds
speaker simulation (the characteristic sound
of a closed-back cabinet with a 12" speaker).
A setup like this allows you to achieve total
silence onstage, giving the front-of-house
sound guy total control over your tone in
the PA. Better hire a good sound guy!
Power scaling. The basic concept of
this exciting technology is that by lowering
the voltage to the output stage of a
tube amp, you can lower the volume and
make the amp clip at a lower level—while
still retaining that cranked-amp feel and
tone. Fortunately, power-scaling kits can be
installed by a qualified tech on amps that
don’t have it onboard.
It’s really a great time to be a guitarist.
With so many options and gear choices available
now, it’s relatively easy to achieve the
cranked-amp tones we crave, at volume levels
appropriate for any situation. Until next
month, crank it up and then turn it down!
is an L.A.-based guitarist, currently touring with Melissa Etheridge. His solo album, Guitar Nerd
, is available through iTunes or cdbaby.com. Read more about his career at peterthorn.com