Guitarists have a reputation for major contribution to volume wars on-stage and in the studio. This reputation is perhaps personified in that famous – and often over-quoted – line from the movie Spinal Tap. We all know the line — “this one goes up to 11.” Brilliant…
Seriously, though, how many times do you see guitarist’s turn up to a small gig with a stack amp large enough to fill Wembley Stadium? To make matters worse, they insist on cranking the amp up hot in the process.
Let’s be fair, there’s method to the madness; guitar amps – valve amps particularly – just sound better when they’re run hot. You need to get those power amp valves nice and hot to create the rich harmonics associated with overdriven guitar tones.
It’s a tricky balance; loud guitars sound great, but then again, overly loud stages or live rooms are the sound engineer’s worst nightmare. Not to mention the obvious disadvantages for fellow band members, who, if not driven to despair by ringing ears, will at least find their performance drowned out or compromised by unintelligible noise.
In this article, we cover several solutions to help keep volume down, retain great tone, and save your hearing (possibly even your sanity) in the process.
1. Consider Swapping the Stack Amp for a Combo
Ok, we get it, a small combo amp placed neatly on the floor doesn’t quite fit the rock n’ roll “wall-of-sound” image. They can, however, bring significant advantages to both studio and live applications – they can even sound bigger in many cases.
Take a small 15-watt combo compared to a 100-watt stack amp, for example. Considering we know that guitar amps sound better when the power amp stage is run loud and hot, wouldn’t it make more sense to run a small amp at close to capacity instead of running a large amp at say a quarter of its capability? Generally speaking, you’ll be able to achieve the rich, harmonic tone you’re after at a more manageable volume level. Your ears, your band mates, and your engineer will thank you.
2. Don’t Want to Drop the Stack? Tame the Beast with an Attenuator.
Sometimes, despite the volume issues, you just don’t want to switch amps. This is your tone, you’ve worked on it for years, you’re accustomed to how it sounds, and anything else just isn’t the same. Large amps might even be part of your band’s image, and that’s cool, looks are important in this game we call the music business.
In this scenario, the best investment you can make – whether you’re an engineer or a gigging guitarist – is an amplifier attenuator. Put simply, an attenuator takes the signal from your power amp stage and constricts it before it reaches the speaker or cabinet. The amp is still running really hot, you’re getting all the benefits of those lovely harmonics, only the volume reaching your speaker is controlled and manageable.
There are a few attenuators on the market, but among the most comprehensive is Radial’s Headload. Alongside reducing the amps signal to a more manageable level, the Headload also acts as a speaker simulator and DI box – allowing you to record direct, provide a secondary DI signal on live stages, or even practice silently through headphones. Basically, it’s great for the guitarist, and even better for the engineer and band.
3. Ditch the Stage Wedges in Favour of In-Ear Monitors.
One of the greatest advantages to using in-ear monitors on stage is reduced stage volume. With traditional stage wedges, individual band members are forever asking the monitor engineer to turn up their track – resulting in a creeping stage volume or a full-on volume war. Receiving your own personalised mix directly to your earphones takes some getting used to, but once you do, the benefits are enormous. You’ll be less tempted to turn your amp up, the overall stage volume will be lower, and subsequently, a clearer, more intelligible mix is easier for the engineer to achieve. It’s a win-win for all.
Check out the Shure PSM300 for a professional and affordable way into wireless in-ear monitor systems.
4. Now That You’ve Reduced Stage Volume Consider Changing Your Mic Technique
Typically, the most common approach to micing a guitar cab is with a dynamic mic placed very close to the grille (this is especially true in live applications). While this works well in very loud stage scenarios where you need to reduce unwanted bleed from other instruments significantly, it isn’t always the best option tonally. Placing the mic further away will capture a more realistic, natural sounding representation of the guitar cab.
Secondary to this, lower stage volume can allow for experimentation with condenser or ribbon mic options. Condenser microphones will produce a brighter, more natural sound thanks in part to their faster transient response while dynamic mics typically have a mellower, rounded sound. Whether or not a condenser mic works for you will depend partly on the musical genre and feedback risk, but in any case, lowering stage volume makes their use on stage more viable.
From a studio perspective, if you’re not already experimenting with condenser mics, ribbon mics, or just greater distance from the amp using a dynamic mic – we’d suggest giving it a go. When combined with a sensibly sized combo, or a nicely attenuated amp, the result produced is often a more natural and true representation of your amps tone.
Which sounds better? dynamic or condenser? Well, that’s a whole other topic. The point is, keeping volume lower will gift you greater control and more options.
So there you have it. Perhaps, in conclusion, we can consider it like this: if there is no quiet, there can be no loud. If everything is full-on all the time, you begin to lose the light and shade that makes music worth listening too. Not to mention how fatiguing the exposure to a wall of noise can be – quiet is indeed the new loud. Go small to go big!
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