from the lab

We’re starting with our favorite amp as the basis for our tone, then we’re using a second amp to blend in with the first, creating our composite signal.

It’s been a month – have you acquired that second amp? Picking up from my last article, in the most basic setup, we’re starting with our favorite amp as the basis for our tone. Then we’re using a second amp to blend in with the first to create our composite signal. For the sake of simplicity and building our knowledge one step at a time, we’ll limit this article to talking about using only two amps.

Achieving independent control of each amp is the next step in the two-amp setup. After the signal split, we could put a volume pedal inline to one or both of the amps. We can now blend the amps for different flavors beyond just two straight amps. Also, odds are that at least one of the amps has channel switching. That adds a whole additional layer of possibilities just from two amps, a volume pedal or two, and an A-B-Y box.

What about effects? The wet/dry setup is very effective. We can use the second amp to color and tone-shape the primary amp. Rather than muddy up that great amp we spent all of that money on, we can color and affect the second amp, leaving the first amp’s tone and punch untouched. The primary amp will come roaring through surrounded by, but not masked by, the tone and effects of the second amp. Adding a multi-fx unit with MIDI or channel switching controls in the effects loop of one or both of the amps gives us even more sonic combinations and control than any single amp could ever achieve. In addition to simply adding effects, many of the current effects units on the market today have a CC (Continuous Controller) input that would expand your tonal capabilities even further.

So many of us get locked in the mind set of getting that one "great" amp that''s going to do it all for us, when in fact, sometimes it takes a team effort.

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--> If you’re not careful in constructing your tone, misplaced/misused pedals can kill your sound. Now then, all you steely-eyed guitar killers, what have we learned about our beloved

From The Lab
If you’re not careful in constructing your tone, misplaced/misused pedals can kill your sound.
Now then, all you steely-eyed guitar killers, what have we learned about our beloved distortion? Let’s take a moment to recap.

First off, we should have a good understanding of the terms overdrive, distortion, gain, and volume. As luck would have it, all of these aspects of our guitar sound are closely related and overlap somewhat. As a result, they are often incorrectly used to refer to one another. If you’re still a little hazy on the differences, please consult our last four discussions (available online at But if you’re short on time like the rest of us, the following is a quick rundown.

Overdrive is essentially the result of pushing a signal above “normal” limits. This can cause distortion, an increase in volume, and, in technical terms, an increase in gain. The confusion among the terms is becoming understandable now, isn’t it?

Distortion occurs when something causes the signal to bend or square off from its original shape or amplitude. Remember, amplitude is the “height” of the signal, often measured in a voltage. Whatever is causing the distortion can be overdriving the tubes or components. These can be wave shaping devices such as pedals designed for this purpose or even the speakers when pushed to their limits. It should be noted that most distortion is not very musical. In most cases, the more distortion the less original tone, which is why true tube amp distortion tends to sound better than the pedalderived kind. That is the main problem guitarists face with distortion pedals – they stray too far from the original tone of the guitar and amp. Keeping the tone intact is difficult but pedals work great for achieving distortion at less than ear-damaging levels – see the trade off?

Gain interplays with volume, overdrive and distortion. It is usually a function of a circuit, whether it is an amp, mixing console, etc. Gain is usually referenced at the beginning of a circuit and can increase the volume of the signal, up to a point. After the operating parameter of the circuit is reached, the signal will begin to become distorted – a classic example of overdrive. Continuing to add gain at this point will not increase the loudness but will add to the amount of distortion. This is often described as “thick.”

Volume simply refers to loudness, period. It doesn’t matter if it is a clean or distorted signal – loud is loud. Pushing the pre or post-volumes may cause overdrive, which then gives us distortion. Around and around we go.

In parts two and three we looked at some signal waveforms on a osciloscope. Review these photos to get a good “visual” representation of what they represent. Part two also covered the communication aspect of the music we play – I cannot over emphasize how important this is in relation to overdrive and distortion. It is paramount to remember that less is more in a band situation. When you are playing with a band the guitar signal has to “fit in the mix” and not compete with the vocals and cymbals. When practicing alone you can distort all you want – and it sure sounds good – but use that same amount of crunch with the band and I can assure you the band will sound like hammered mud.

Part three spoke about the ins and outs of pedals, and our love/hate relationship with them. Pedals can be great tools to achieve heavy distortion at lower volumes, but as the volume rises the sound starts going south. Pedals have an inherent “tone robbing” aspect and often take your original tone far from home. This too is not always a bad thing, but it is a pity to have the tone of a $3000 guitar killed by a $100 pedal. Pedals must be kept in their proper place as you work on achieving killer tone.

Our fourth article covered speakers and hopefully you did your homework and checked out the speaker websites – if not, “git ta steppin’!” There is a ton of really great information on those sites. What is your tone worth? Do you want to sound really good or just be average? You have to figure out which type of speaker, amp, pedals and guitar work for you – not me, Eddie, Ted, Dan, Zakk, Stevie or Chet. You have to work this out – it’s your tone.

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

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.