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Tiny, low-wattage amps as affordable, customizable studio tools

You may have heard the saying, “bigger isn’t always better.” This certainly holds true for guitar amps, especially in the studio! Just because an amp is small, with low wattage, doesn’t mean you can’t get a screaming huge tone out of it. These days, little tube amps seem to be popping up everywhere and are rapidly gaining popularity. Why? It’s the combination of being able to get quality tube saturation at low volume in a compact package and at an appealing price point. Most small amps also seem to handle guitar pedals and effects well.

Low-power tube amps such as these models from Fender, Randall, and Vox can be lifesavers in the studio.

Collect Them All
Some of the most popular of these little buggers include the Orange Tiny Terror, Vox Night Train and AC4, Fender ’57 Champ and Champion 600, Marshall Haze and Class 5, and the Epiphone Valve Junior and new Valve Junior Hot Rod. The recently announced Mesa/Boogie TransAtlantic also has a huge buzz going. However, there are many more. Small amps are available in head-and-cabinet or combo formats, and their street prices range from $130 to $1000. Each model provides its own unique tone and features, and some even have selectable output-power levels for more volume control when you’re going for maximum breakup.

What’s the Big Deal?
As most of us know, tube amps like to be pushed. But try getting those classic, cranked tube tones with a big, powerful amp and your ears will be ringing for days! With a tiny amp (in the 5-watt or so range), you can open the amp wide up to take advantage of overdriving the power tube(s) for that massive, dynamic tube tone we all love—without shredding your ears or annoying your neighbors. Plus, the price and size are right. I’ve started collecting these like guitar pedals due to their portability and reasonable cost. They’re also easy to hide from my fiancée!

Head vs. Combo
Should you go with a petite head or combo? This can be a tough decision, because they both have advantages. A head is great to have because you can combine it with different types of cabs, which allows you to customize the tone quite a bit. On the other hand, a compact combo with a small speaker yields interesting tones that cut through in the upper midrange. (This sounds great on leads, by the way.) And you can’t argue with the portability of a tiny combo. It’s all about what works best for you.

Let’s Have Some Fun!
I recommend trying different new old stock (NOS) and new tubes in your petite amp(s) to customize the tone and response. I also like to plug into two different tiny amps at once using an ABY pedal and blend the two for new tones, great stereo effects, and recording a full sound without having to track overdubs. Just place a mic in front of each amp and pan one hard left and one hard right to achieve a nice, wide tone. And to make things larger than life, mix in some stereo delay.

In Session
A few months back, I was recording a local band in my studio. The plan was to track live, which I had done in the past with great results. When the lead guitarist arrived, he was carrying a Vox AC30—a great amp, but extremely loud. I knew this would be a problem, especially if he wanted the thing to break up. Sure enough, he turned it way up and the earth shook…ouch! There was no way we were going to isolate that amp from the other instrument mics. Fortunately, he trusts my engineering skills and took my suggestion to try a different amp. Breathing a sigh of relief, I reached for my secret weapon, the 4-watt, 1x10 Vox AC4TV combo. I cranked it, slapped a Sennheiser e609 mic on the grille, and we got to work. A few hours later, we had layers of big, present guitars with killer tone. The band was happy, the neighbors weren’t disturbed, and my ears weren’t ringing! Even though it’s a tiny amp, the AC4TV produces that classic Vox class-A tone, but it breaks up at a very reasonable volume that’s ideal for most studio situations. This is just one example of how small amps can be great tools. No matter what genre or tone you’re after, there’s a compact amp that can crank it out for you!

I encourage you to get your hands on one or more of these amazing, petite-sized tube amps to increase your tonal diversity, achieve greater portability, and make recording a lot easier and more practical. I’ll warn you that they’re addictive, though. Once you try one, you’ll want them all. Fortunately, most are reasonably affordable, and having a bunch of them scattered around your jam room looks cool!

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