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Speaking of Distortion...

This month we will examine an aspect of distortion that has a substantial amount of control over our sound because it is the last physical component before the signal

From The Lab This month we will examine an aspect of distortion that has a substantial amount of control over our sound because it is the last physical component before the signal hits our ears – the speaker.

Speakers come in about a million different flavors, and no single design can work in every situation. We must keep in mind that for every purpose or requirement there is likely a type of speaker best suited for the job, plus a bunch of them that simply won’t cut it. Speakers come in many different sizes and compositions, but for guitar and bass applications, we are generally concerned with 8”, 10”, 12” and 15” sizes.

The 8” speaker is usually found on very small amps, such as the Fender Champ, Valcos, or Silvertones. An 8” speaker usually doesn’t sound very good for rock n’ rollers, but sometimes a mini can do well with pedals at low volumes. 10” air pushers find their way into medium amps, and exist in groups of two, four, six or eight. 4x10 cabs can really kick – four 10” speakers move more air than one 15”, which is why we see 4x10 bass cabs in great numbers.

The big 15s are usually relegated to bass, but they can work for guitar. Like the little 8”, try your amp with a 15” speaker and a few pedals. The sound should be perfect for low-end grunge, heavy seven strings and dropped tuning! Try some good, oldfashioned Black Sabbath tunings – total drop to C# – played through a very dark pedal and a 15”. If done correctly, there is the great possibility of trauma for innocent bystanders. In this situation, be careful not to use too much volume and learn to listen for the speaker bottoming out.

That brings us to the 12”– the most common speaker size for guitar. Many 12” models are specific to the guitar, and there are many derivatives within this class. The power handling, ohm load, cone and dust cap types and magnet composition are all variables that must be taken into consideration for achieving a particular sound. For more information on these parameters and how they’ll affect your tone, visit the websites of companies like Celestion, Jensen, Eminence, Weber, Scumback and Tone Tubby. They all have a lot of great information and if you can’t find an answer to your question, look closely, most questions are addressed. Drop a line to Ted at Weber or Jim at Scumback and tell them Sarge sent you.

So what does this all have to do with distortion? Speaker distortion occurs similarly to the over driving of electronics: If a speaker is pushed physically beyond what it can cleanly reproduce, the resulting sound can become distorted as the speaker begins to move “out of round.” An entire speaker typically moves back and forth equally all the way around. Gas ‘em up, and, depending on how well the speaker can deal with the signal, some parts of the cone may move further than other parts, creating distortion. Guitar specific speakers are usually less stiff and have lower tolerances staying true than their counterparts designed for PA or hi-fi use, which is why we can say a Celestion “breaks up” better than a JBL.

It should be noted that speaker distortion exists in a very limited area of musicality. Tube distortion is normally more musical than pedal-derived distortion, with speaker distortion falls last on the list as “musical” however, speaker distortion becomes the icing on the cake when you have great tube distortion. The ability to choose a speaker for its mechanical break up is somewhat arbitrary – it is not dependent on one variable, like speaker size. You need to ask lots of questions. What kind of amp are you using? What kind of guitar tone do you want? How loud do you want it to go before break up? The best way to determine the particulars is to carefully identify what you are looking for in terms of tone and to review the speaker manufacturers’ websites (remember our homework assignment?).

But is over driving your speaker safe? Definitely, as most of our favorite music from the sixties and seventies would attest. Of course, there is a fine line between musical and death to the speaker. Players need to listen to their speaker and become very aware of when it is being pushed too far. For the trained this is instantly obvious; for the unaware, speakers will burn out and put out crummy sound. This is an area that I can get mad as a wet hornet over – more often than I’d like to recall I’ve heard speakers hitting the wall and the player was off in a fog of his/her own fantasy. The key here is to listen and quit “just turning it up to 10.” Great tone is elusive, but it isn’t that hard either. Listen, listen, listen.

Keep in mind that there are no good or bad speakers, unless the speaker is not functioning correctly. Speakers must be used in the application best suited for their design characteristics and the desired sound. Because of that, I have 30-plus amps, five 4x12 cabs, three 4x10 cabs, a 2x15, a single 15, a 6x10, two 2x12s and two single 12” cabs – all with various speaker types. I tend to follow an old maxim:

“How many guitars, amps and speakers does one man need?” “As many as he can get.”

Gary "Sarge" Gistinger
President, Creation Audio Labs, Inc.