Pro Audio Files

The Complete Guide to Guitar Amps in the Studio

You’ve set up a nice studio for yourself. You’ve bought a lot of great mics, acoustically treated your room, invested in some preamps and you’re ready to go.

You may have not thought about guitar amps though.

Instruments often take the backseat in a studio. I wrote a blog about this a little while ago. But, I want to elaborate. This time, specifically about guitar amps.

It may not seem very complicated, but it is. There are many options, some that are smoke and mirrors.

In the modern world, guitarists expect to roll in and see at least one nice amp.

It’s not always practical or in the budget to take an amp to a session. If I do take an amp to a session, it’s likely to be just one. It’s nice to have other options.

Q & A

I decided to have a chat with some of NYC’s top session guitarists. The topic: If you had to have just one amp on a session what would it be?

I expected the results to be all over the place. But, the answer was overwhelmingly a Fender Princeton.

One of the reasons for this is it’s a low wattage amp. That means it breaks up without blowing out eardrums. It’s also very versatile and light. If I was bringing an amp to a session, it would either be my Headstrong Lil’ King (blackface Princeton) or my Victoria 35115 (Tweed Pro).

There may be a few other factors related to NYC that enter the picture too. Princetons are very popular here for gigging. They tend to be the perfect amp for most venues.

A lot of the top players are used to that sound. Because of this familiarity, it’s easy to dial them in.

Music styles fall in and out of favor. Right now, the music that is coming out of NYC works well with the Fender sound. Years ago there was more of a Marshall phase.

All of this has to be considered when purchasing an amp for your studio. What kind of music are you most likely going to record? If metal is your thing, a Princeton isn’t your best bet.

Let’s talk about some classic choices that will offer a lot of flexibility.

Designer Jeans

First things first. Forget about name brands! Think more about the original sound those amps were known for.

In other words, just because it has the Vox name on it doesn’t mean its gonna sound like one you most associate with that tone.

Magazine ads will lie to you, but the amp can’t lie to a microphone. Some manufactures are living off ghosts of the past.

Food Groups

Let’s associate ourselves with the four main food groups of amps.

We have Fender, Marshall, Vox in the main category. That’s just to cover classic guitar sounds.

I know you’re all going to send me nominations for other classic amps, but I’m making broad strokes here.

Let’s further dissect these three options.

Marshall

We often associate these with Hendrix or Zeppelin (both used other amps on some of their most famous recordings). Many others have built their sound on them: Cream, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses are just a few to mention. Clearly these amps are for RAWK!!

There are a couple of categories for Marshall amps though. Here’s a real simple breakdown.

The JTM45 and 1959 Plexi will get you through the 60’s and 70’s. JCM 800 will get you through the 80’s and a JCM 900 will cover the 90’s.  One of the most obvious differences is the amount of gain available.

I wouldn’t expect to buy a modern Marshall and get those classic sounds. You’re best best is buying vintage or checking our some of the companies that make modern versions. Check out companies like Germino, Divided By 13, and Metro.

Vox

One of the most recognizable amp sounds ever. The Beatles early career is primarily Vox Ac30. Tom Petty, Queen, U2, REM, Radiohead are some that have developed their sound from Vox.

They play nice with mics and mixing and have a shimmer that cuts through nicely.

It gets tricky finding a good souring one. The company has changed hands several times over the years. This means QC is all over the place. They do make some nice hardwired models. I still prefer companies like JMI and Top Hat.

Specifically, models that recreate the  AC15 or AC30 models.

Fender

Fender, like Marshall needs to be broken down into categories. There are four families of them, each very different.

Tweed

Tweed amps have wonderful punch and midrange. The Deluxe 5E3 is one of the most famous sounds. The Hotel California solo and Cinnamon Girl come to mind.

The guitars on the Layla record were recorded using a tweed champ.

Note: If you buy a vintage tweed be warned that there is Asbestos in them. One of the reasons I choose a modern made Victoria tweeds.

Brownface

These have a very different character from tweeds. They have more power and not as much midrange bark. They also have a very unique swampy tremelo. Think Dick Dale.

Imagine the liberal tweed and the conservative blackface having a love child.

Blackface

The mids are more scooped than the tweed and brown face models.

This era of amps started coming with reverb built in instead of an outboard unit. They also have a tremolo circuit, but sounds a little less swampy than the coveted brownface trem.

Silverface

After CBS bought fender things changed. The circuits changed. For a while they were considered undesirable. Nowadays, guitarists are scooping them up.

This is pretty much where I stop when it comes to classic Fender tone. There are plenty of used versions on the market. I’m really into some of the current boutique builders that are making the tweed and blackface circuits.

Check out Headstrong and Victoria amps to see a current build that nails those tones.

Warning! Danger! Warning!

Stay away from amps with modeling. It’s better to have a fantastic one-trick pony than a modeling amp that doesn’t nail anything.

An amp is part of the instrument. Treat it as such. You’re only making it easier for yourself downstream.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com
  • Matt

    C’mon stay away from ANYTHING that models amps? There is good and bad in that world too. I mean, I have 3 really great amps in my studio, Splawn Quickrod, Mesa Tremoverb, and a ’62 Gretsch model 6159, but I can still manage to find sounds in an Eleven Rack, POD HD, or Native Instruments Guitar Rig that are great and totally usable. However, I will say I agree with the idea of going with something that at least nails 1 sound rather than having a ton of sounds that just get you close. But to warn against the “danger” of modelers, I mean that’s just silly.

    • thefyn

      Usable, but when you stack them on top of each other…Blerg. Good for writing etc but there is no competition vs your Splawn (sic).

  • Mark Marshall

    to clarify, I was speaking about real amplifiers that have modeling in them. Not plugins and external emulators. I will say though that if you’re running a high end studio and all you have is an Eleven Rack, you should have a real amp as an option. As a producer/session musician, I wouldn’t book time in that studio. Sure, it’s cool in a pinch and nice to have an alternative. But, most players still prefer a real amp in a large studio. And a nice amp at that.

  • david staab

    I personally have found that the older amp the better. Line 6 is over digitalized crap. Along with the new valve state amps such as Peavys valve king(total crap) new marshalls, fenders, mesa boogie, and laney they lack tonality and response. They pack so much crap into these things that they turn into a land fill and sound like one when you play them. There over compressed digitally distorted b and c grade amplification garbage.
    With this said i have always play through my peavy bandit 112 which is one of the last great peavy models released
    I also own a 112 taynor from i do beleive 72 which is all tube and sounds fantastic
    But for me the prize goes to my ampeg VT 40 This amp is by far the best guitar amp i have ever played its highs cut through the mids dont get drounded out from the lows nor the highs and the lows are absolutely gut wrenching with my vintage rate distortion .
    Its the top mount 68 version right before ampeg sold their guitar circuits to hiwatt and vox previously known a duovox a company specifically for accordion amplification. Fun fact of the day
    With this said the older the amp the better. It might be costly.to maintain but its well worth it because you cant model these sounds at all. Nothing is better than the real deal. Also a little tip if your tubes are going in a vintage amp take it to a tech and have them do it. You cant check the bias

    • Mark Marshall

      I have a vintage ampeg V4B from ’72 that is great as a guitar head. they we’re making great stuff back then. I love old amps. right on about most modern digital amps. there are some companies though that are making amps like the old ones. if you haven’t had a chance, do check out headstrong and victoria. they are keeping the flame burning. personally, I don’t like PCB board amps. The irony is that a lot of big brand companies that make “reissues” are making them as PCB board amps when the originals weren’t. How is that a real reissue then? Marketing. Old amps and boutique amps can always be fixed much easier the PCB board amps too.

  • david staab

    I will have to play one to hear for myself. Another thing with pcb amps is that they are all what i like to call b grade amplification the companies cheap out on the good cathode’s diodes resistors, capasitors, bridge rectifiers. Amongst the tranformers all to save a buck in the end and it ultimately.leads to an amp thats ok but less quality than what its name and price entails. And as many should know almost all of them are cnc machine made and the only thing handwired is the outlet thus making them able to brand it with the hand wired embellishment.

    • Mark Marshall

      and the cabinets aren’t solid pine anymore. those old finger jointed cabinets breath a lot nicer. I don’t know about you, but I always hear it in the high end. something funny happens that doesn’t on real hand wired amps. The reissue Twin Reverbs are so harsh compared to the originals.

  • Joey Diehl

    But what about the latest version of Fractal Audios Axe Fx? Modeling has been catching up and in some cases the pros outweigh the cons of a modeller when all aspects of a studio are being considered.

    • Mark Marshall

      Nah, for ultra pro work I still don’t think it stands up. Live sometimes for touring, but not in the studio. great for tv commercial work or demos or as an alternative. Def. not a replacement tho. It really doesn’t sound or feel the same. I look at them like “an absolute need to” application. Some people can’t record real amps because of their environment. This shouldn’t be an issue for a commercial studio. The pros don’t outweigh the cons for most pro session players.

  • david staab

    Im my opinion like Mark had said a one trick pony is the best way to go. I run a small basement studio on the island and when guys come in with an amp that is built for modeling 9 times out of ten they hate the way its sounds when mic’d up and even when using the line in. They usually endup using my effects board and one of my amps. Look at the pro’s. They all have a one trick pony and build an fx board of their favorite.stomp boxes to get the sound that they want. Buying a modeling amplifier is a cop out.Your just taking someone elses tone and effects which they take years upon years to build and craming it in with twenty other presets. Your selling your self short. Take the time to build your own sound, it takes time yes but in the end you will look at these new amplifiers the way we do. On a side note mark you are totally right about the old pine cabinets. Most of the cabinets now are made out of mdf. Cheap fiber board that eats up the sound. I am a cabinet builder and the least these companies can do is use mdo.ply at least it’s real hard wood would make for a great natural crisp high end shimmer. But in our world today it quantity over quality. And the difference between them is easly a $700 difference. Such a shame

  • thefyn

    Great advice. Can’t fault it. And I want to…I WANT TO SHOW THEM ALL!!!!!!

  • Mark Jeffery

    Nice post. Helped a lot.

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