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True "Secret" of Amp Tone - EQ>Dist and Power Attenuators

You can almost certainly get satisfactory sound from your existing decent tube amp, without mods, by using, or at least experimenting with, the following chain:

 

guitar

eq pedal

Comp/OD/Dist pedals

eq pedal

amp's preamp

amp's tone stack

amp's tube power amp

good power attenuator

amp's guitar speakers

 

The above is truly the "secret" of great amp tone.  Most postings, books, and amp tone videos dwell on amp brands and mods and swapping tube types and swapping speakers or pickups, but such priorities are backwards.  The real first order of business is knowing how to make the most of *any* decent tube guitar amp. 

 

It's a shame that most guitarists try all sorts of things other than the secret weapon that gets straight to the point: the eq>dist>eq pedal chain, which you can put before any guitar amp, in conjunction with -- just as important at the other end of the chain -- some way of getting power-tube saturation independently of speaker volume, and this amounts to the (unfortunately) "secret" of power attenuators.

 

 

*Every* electric guitarist ought to be just as familiar with power attenuators and EQ pedals as they are with distortion pedals and amp brands.  Everyone talks about amp brands and models all the time, and swapping tubes and guitar speakers and pickups, but those must be considered 2nd-tier, drastic solutions.  The first kind of solution people should try is EQ pedals and power attenuators. 

 

There ought to be, therefore, proportionately less discussion of amp brands and models and distortion and overdrive models, and more discussion of EQ pedal usage and power attenuators.  Most guitar stores don't sell THD Hot Plate power attenuators, and don't really even sell Marshall Power Brake power attenuators. 

 

But these stores are always eager to "solve" your problem by selling you another expensive guitar amp, or several distortion pedals.  Most guitarists who own a tube amp have never seriously tried adding an EQ pedal or two and a good power attenuator.

 

 

The problem isn't a matter of "finding the right amp"; it's a matter of truly understanding the true basics of amp tone, which amounts, first and foremost, before brand-specific and custom solutions, to really understanding the alternation of EQ and distortion stages, and understanding the existing products that enable you to dial in any amount of preamp distortion and any amount of power-tube saturation, at any speaker volume level. 

 

I've read all postings about power attenuators I could find over the years.  People who know about the good ones (with more bass and treble than the Power Soak) rave about them and recommend them to everyone.  There should be far more discussion of power attenuators, because most people are unable, in practice, to turn up their amp loud enough to obtain power-tube saturation, unless using a power attenuator, but power-tube saturation is essential for obtaining a satisfying range of amp tones.

 

People shouldn't consider power attenuators to be special or exotic.  Power attenuators should be just as routinely familiar and commonplace as distortion pedals. 

 

Same with EQ pedals.  Placing an EQ pedal before an amp and in the amp's FX loop, and bracketing a distortion pedal by two EQ pedals, should be the most ordinary and familiar thing in the world, but alas, power attenuators and intelligent, masterful use of EQ pedals remains in the category of "secret tone techniques of the stars" instead of where they deservedly belong, in the toolkit of every beginning and advanced electric guitarist, right along with overdrive and distortion pedals. 

 

EQ pedals and power attenuators are not exotic at all; the industry will be switch from being mostly dissatisfied to mostly satisfied when people start considering these devices to be every bit as basic, or even more basic, that overdrive and distortion pedals.

 

 

There also would be many more satisfied and psyched guitarists, more enthusiasm, if there were more discussion of using EQ pedals.  It's amazing how few guitarists have seriously tried EQ pedals, though distortion voicing is very largely about EQ curves alternating with distortion stages.  The depth of ignorance and frustration about the most basic and elementary aspects of amp tone is reflected by how few guitarists understand the sequence EQ->distortion. 

 

Guitarists in the 60s and 70s were more intelligent about amps because they were more familiar with how the amp's tone stack affected the character or voicing of the power-tube saturation.  In the 80s, guitarists fell into always thinking in terms of the sequence distortion->EQ, which always meant *preamp* distortion followed by a heavy V curve in the amp's tone stack, which couldn't produce a good voicing of the *power-tube* saturation. 

 

The first principle of amp tone, the first thing every beginning guitarist ought to be taught, is the sequence

 

eq1

preamp distortion

eq2

power-tube saturation

eq3

 

 

That sequence is the gear equivalent of learning the E and A power-chords in the realm of playing the guitar -- yet few guitarists know it.  Just as there are books on "how to play the guitar", there should be books "how to play a guitar amp rig".  There are books about guitar effects, and other books about guitar amps, and other books about guitars, and other books about recording the guitar. 

 

What's needed is to identify and gather the truly most fundamental information -- that has been tried but without successfully identifying the true key principles.  I have seen mentions of power attenuators, speaker isolation, and EQ pedals, but never with the strong emphasis that they deserve, and never in conjunction.  Instead, the following chain is mistakenly presented as the foundation:

 

distortion pedal

time effects in amp's effects loop

tube power amp

guitar speakers

 

Then later, separately, EQ pedals are mentioned in passing among all the special effects, and power attenuators are buried in an appendix.  When the above poor chain is expanded into more detail, multiple eq pedals aren't shown (one before all preamp distortion and another after all preamp distortion), and a power attenuator isn't shown, except as one of many "setups of the stars" diagrams.

 

Long before discussing the logic of placing echo before reverb, a thorough discussion is needed of shaping distortion voicing by a tone stack or EQ pedal placed before that distortion stage, and a thorough coverage is required of how a power attenuator enables power-tube saturation on tap, independently of speaker volume.

 

The first chapter of a "great guitar sounds" book ought to cover this 5-stage alternating eq/distortion sequence rather than leaping into the special effects of time effects placement.

 

How can the books even talk about "the chain", without emphasizing these most basic aspects of the chain?  The emphasis in the existing books is wrong; these principles are found only in a scattered and haphazard way, though they are the true foundation, the true "secret" of amp tone.

 

Every amp rig has this fundamental sequence, whether consciously or not. 

 

eq (guitar eq; affected by pickup and body)

preamp distortion

eq (the amp's tone stack [Bass/Mid/Treble controls])

power-tube saturation

eq (speaker eq; affected by guitar speaker)

 

If you control eq1, eq2, and eq3, including the overall levels at these points, you control the world of amp tone -- regardless of the model or brand of amp, or custom mods, or inconvenient swapping of pickups, tubes, and speakers. 

 

The latter component swapping is fine for extremists, but that should be seen as a second level of approaches, *after* the first step, which is to consciously take control of eq1, eq2, and eq3 by the simplest and most practical means: inserting an EQ near the start of the chain, and inserting a good power attenuator near the end of the chain. 

 

There would be a lot more satisfied guitarists if everyone learned the eq>dist>eq>dist>eq sequence, including a power attenuator as part of the level controls at each stage.  First things first.  If you bring me an amp and ask how to get better Tone, the *first* thing I'd do is put an eq>dist>eq chain before the amp, and a power attenuator after the amp, and see if that immediately provides the control needed. 

 

Then, I'd see how many components can be removed while keeping the desired tone.  Only after that fails would the 2nd tier of solutions come up -- the kinds of discussions that unfortunately predominate, about purchasing other amps or swapping pickups, tubes, or speakers.

 

 

People have an unbalanced way of elevating the importance of power-tube saturation.  They portray it as though it's the only thing needed, so that we end up with unusable minimalist amp rigs that only sound good under very narrow circumstances, such as cranked Blues.  Instead, we ought to start with power-tube saturation, but immediately add everything that is practical and helpful to support and contribute to that saturation, and enable it to be used more fully. 

 

With most amps, this means simply adding eq>dist>eq pedals and a good power attenuator.  There are few decent tube amps that wouldn't produce better sound, in practical usage, by adding eq>dist>eq and a power attenuator.  Now, some amps stand above the others, because they happen to have the preamp distortion voicing you want, that matches your guitar, and that have some built-in power attenuation. 

 

But the given scenario is, most people already have a decent tube amp but don't know how to augment and run that amp to produce the desired preamp distortion voicing combined with power-tube saturation at the desired, limited volume.  And in the unbalanced vehement defense of the importance of power tubes, a false taboo has been created, the taboo against adding components to a cranked tube power amp. 

 

Control of the world of amp tone is there for all tube amp players, if you simply break the taboo and add certain components -- the most relevant types of products -- to the supposed "foundation" of tube power amp saturation.  Power tube saturation isn't really the foundation of classic amp tone, but is only one necessary component of a system.  The true foundation of classic amp tone comprises the following factors:

 

Control of eq1 - involves pickup selection and an eq pedal.

Control of preamp distortion - involves having a variety of distortion boxes or voicings to choose from, including the amp's preamp distortion.

Control of eq2 - involves the amp's tone stack or an EQ pedal in the amp's FX loop.

Control of power-tube saturation - involves a power attenuator or equivalent (pulling tubes, Variac, Power Scaling).

Control of eq3 - involves speaker selection or high-level EQ controls on a good power attenuator.

Control of the speaker volume - involves a power attenuator.

 

The solutions that are usually talked about, like swapping pickups, tubes, or speakers, are a proper *second*-line solution, somewhat more drastic and custom and involved than these factors, and can't be simply migrated to any decent amp that you use.  It's great to be independent of particular models, by having control that can be applied to any decent tube amp and any decent electric guitar. 

 

The simplest way to have this end-to-end control is to have an eq>dist>eq pedal chain and a power attenuator.  If there are amps that happen to already have the desired preamp distortion voicing, great, don't use all those pedals.  If the amp has the right output power already, then great, don't use a power attenuator. 

 

But the weaknesses of most amps exactly match the capabilities of the eq>dist>eq pedal chain and a power attenuator; that set of 4 elements is the perfect solution to the great majority of amp problems, and the disproportionately overfamiliar solutions are only most fitting for the minority of problems.

 

 

>Re: Need good advice on finding the right amp

 

>I've never really had an amp that sounded real good to me.

 

Yes you have had potentially good sounding amps, but you lacked the basic "secret knowledge" of how to elicit and utilize it, due to the lack of attention to power attenuators and the eq>dist sequence (the principle of alternating eq and distortion stages).

 

>Without buying a Matchless or Victoria is there any affordable decent amps that sound good clean and dirty?  I've had some amps that sound good clean,but distortion is usually worthless.

 

Yes, there are such amps, but it's good to be able to augment *any* decent tube amp to bring out its potential great clean, quasi-clean, and dirty Tone, including your existing amp.  If you haven't applied basic gear techniques to your existing amp, or previous amps, chances are, you won't do much better with another amp. 

 

You're strongest as an operator of guitar amps if you master running all guitar amps and don't depend on the designer to voice the amp the way that happens to work best for you.  Don't be overly dependent on component variances and designer skill; be able to *control* each main aspect of amp tone by understanding the power of the EQ pedal and power attenuator to shape preamp distortion and power-tube saturation.

 

Even if you don't use EQ pedals and a power attenuator in a gig, they are essential for rapid and efficient learning, testing gear, ear training, and experimenting.  For example, if you are going to play a gig using just a guitar, cranked head, and cab, and you are trying to produce a particular sound you heard previously, you need a setup that enables exploring sound space to find the right combination of settings, including trying various degrees of power-tube saturation.  It's invaluable to be able to do this research at your leisure without high speaker volume.

 

 

>Are there books or videos about amps and tone settings?

 

booksamps.htm -- Books and videos about amps, amp design, and speaker design

booksrecording.htm -- Books/videos: guitar recording and studio design

bookseffects.htm -- Books and videos about effects, effects design, MIDI design, guitar electronics

 

 

> Our guitar player has a pod with a nice fender twin and usually plays a strat. What is the best way to configure this set up? Any thoughts? We are trying to get a deeper or fatter sound. Any opinions deeply appreciated.

 

To fully research and identify the problem and a fix, use this chain:

 

guitar

eq pedal 1

POD

eq pedal 2

guitar amp

power attenuator (a good one, such as Hot Plate)

guitar speakers

 

This will enable you to rapidly try a great variety of settings and determine where the current problem is.  Then, if you want, you can eliminate components from this chain.  Having a couple EQ pedals is essential for amp tone research, because you can rapidly dial in and visualize curves and levels.  I especially like 7-band EQ pedals that have a Level control.

 

Once you determine the EQ 1 curve desired, you may be able to program it into the POD if the POD supports programmable pre-distortion EQ, or you could swap to a pickup with the desired response curve, and remove EQ pedal 1 from the chain.

 

Once you determine the EQ 2 curve desired, you can program that curve into the POD and eliminate EQ pedal 2.

 

A deeper or fatter sound from the Twin may require using more power-tube saturation, or different guitar speakers.  For even more research about the desired fat sound, especially to determine if you want different guitar speakers, you could hook up this chain:

 

guitar

eq pedal 1

POD

eq pedal 2

guitar amp

power attenuator as dummy load

eq pedal 3

solid-state amp

guitar speakers

 

Once you determine what EQ 3 setting you want, you could then try to find a guitar speaker that has that response, and eliminate EQ pedal 3.

 

The minimum I recommend for anyone trying to dial in a better sound with a tube amp is 1 EQ pedal and a good power attenuator.  You may be able to use this extra equipment to research the problem and then eliminate this extra equipment.  This is a universally applicable approach that isn't dependent on what model of amp you happen to own, or what tube types it happens to take.

 

An FX loop is always a major feature to investigate, and you should compare various hookups of the POD before the amp's preamp and in the amp's FX loop. Don't think of the guitar amp as a single box; think of it as a set of independent modules, so that you naturally should test this, for example:

 

guitar

amp's Input jack

FX Send

eq pedal 1

POD

eq pedal 2

FX Return

amp's power-tube saturation

power attenuator

amp's guitar speakers

 

With some combo amps that have speakers hardwired to the head, you may need to build inline 1/4" to 3/16" tab connectors, to insert equipment such as a power attenuator.

 

 

When you understand the basic pro-studio chain, and use of EQ and power attenuation and speaker isolation, there are many ways to hook up gear that sound great and follow the almost unwritten rules of the processing chain for pro studios. 

 

o  The idea of an iso-cab isn't really a deviation from pro studio standard practice, of using an isolation booth and keeping the head in the control room and the cab in the isolation booth with multiple mic signals running back to the control room. 

 

 

o  Use of EQ pedals also initially seems radical and innovative, but architecturally, classic rigs have set much precedence for this.  A Boogie amp, for example, has the tone stack pre-distortion, and the onboard 5-band EQ is after distortion, forming the eq>dist>eq chain.  It's increasingly known that many people used a treble booster, and Hendrix liked the high-treble rolloff of the long coiled guitar cord with a Strat -- that's pre-distortion EQ, as is the wah pedal when placed pre-dist.  Active pickups are another example showing that pre-dist EQ is not at all novel, but is accepted and highly respected practice. 

 

 

o  This leaves, as the most innovative and newfangled trick, the use of a power attenuator.  The "getting guitar sounds" books have dismally poor coverage and understanding of power attenuators, especially when used as designed rather than as a dummy load in a 3-stage amp rig.  Everyone is aware of the Power Soak, but agrees that it sounded muddy -- that was enough, apparently, to give power attenuators an undeservedly bad name. 

 

People know that the Power Brake burns out.  But those are just *bad* power attenuators.  The Hot Plate doesn't sound muddy, due to its providing passive EQ switches, and it handles 185 watts, so a 100-watt amp doesn't burn it out.  Power attenuators don't violate studio conventions -- instead, I would say that studios have been ignorant of them except for the familiar bad Power Soak associations. 

 

Also consider this time of transition from pro studios to home studios.  Pro studios have managed to make do without power attenuators, often by using relatively low-wattage guitar amps -- that is a constant refrain, belabored, in the "recording guitar sounds" books, which don't grasp using the Hot Plate as a power attenuator, but only as a dummy load. 

 

Is there a precedence for power attenuators in the pro studio chain?  Almost -- pro studios love half-power switches and low-wattage guitar amps, and isolation booths.  They've just been ignorant of the Hot Plate.  No studio book has said anything bad about the Hot Plate as a power attenuator -- in fact, they say good things about it but *as* a dummy load. 

 

The worst complaint about power attenuators would be that they don't push speakers hard enough, but the books also say that to get speaker distortion you must use low enough total speaker wattage capacity -- in that case, you could use a 100-watt guitar amp, a Hot Plate, and a 15-watt guitar speaker, which *would* produce speaker distortion.

 

So, unbeknownst to the authors of the "recording guitar sounds" books, using a power attenuator as a power attenuator completely fits into the issues and solutions that are accepted as standard practice for pro guitar sound.


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