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Why Amp Volume is a Secret Ingredient to Getting Great Guitar Tone

There are so many variables with each instrument that it can take years to fully grasp. If you don’t play the instrument, it’s unlikely you’ll ever fully understand many of the subtleties.

As a producer/engineer, you don’t have to understand all of them to have success in capturing great tones. A few simple tricks can get you most of what you need from instruments you don’t play.

I’m going to share a tip today that can also be useful to everyone, even guitarists that have been playing a while.

One of the lesser understood elements of getting great guitar tone is volume.

Live Wire

Sure, everybody knows that tube amps sound good when they’re played loud. That’s not where I’m going with this. Let’s look at the opposite direction.

Often amps that don’t reach a certain volume sound choked. A 100 watt amp on 2 isn’t going to sound like that same amp on 4. This doesn’t have anything to do with tube overdrive.

I find that amps don’t start opening up until they’re on 3.

This can become a problem for certain recording situations. Let’s look at a 100 watt amp for instance. When you put a Marshall JCM800 on 3, it’s loud. A lot louder than a Princeton Reverb on 3.

If you’re working out of a sound proofed studio this won’t be an issue. But, if you’re trying to record in volume challenged environment, its going to be a struggle.

Pedals Fix Everything

Sticking a pedal in front of the amp is not going to solve the choking problem.

Again, it’s not a tube saturation/overdrive issue.

It has to do with the amp opening up. Adding overdrive is not going to make the amp breathe.

Elephant In The Room

I see this happen a lot: People buy a loud amp and try to record at home.

They can barely get the amp on 2 (only to the point where it starts making sound). They put their pedalboard in front of the amp and try to record. The result is not very pleasing.

They wonder what’s wrong with the sound? They placed the mic properly and chose a nice preamp. No matter where they place the mic it’s not making “the difference.”

Size Matters

It’s for this reason I choose low wattage amps for sessions that don’t have sound isolation.

I know that no matter what amp I have, it needs to be on at least 3 to breathe.

When an amp can’t breathe it can sound extremely dull. The lows aren’t defined and the highs sound thin.

One of the things I can compare it to is running through a whole series of non-true bypass pedals in the off position.

You know that sound of your signal being loaded? It’s kinda similar.

You’re not really going to get that real Marshall sound from a 100 watt Marshall on 2.

For this reason, Twin Reverb, Blues Deville, Marshall JCM800 and other high wattage amps are too much for a lot of modern recording situations.

Luckily, there are more options than ever for low wattage amps. Even Marshall makes a 1 watt head now.

Magic Number 3

You can allow a 5 watt amp to breathe on volume 3 without pissing off your super. You can let your tweed deluxe or Blackface Princeton breath without trouble.

This of course is dependent on how many hours you’re going to be playing. As a general rule, I wouldn’t push your luck with neighbors.

Cutoffs

I would avoid amps over 28 watts for home recording.

From my experience, that’s the tipping point. Loud enough to get a clean sound if you want it and to not choke the amp.

You’d be surprised how much this affects the tone of the amp.

Observation Deck

This is something you should observe when guitarists bring their own amps to your studio.

Although, it’s rare to meet a guitarist that doesn’t reach for the volume knob and do the twist of hearing doom.

Every guitarist should plug straight into the amp first to get a good sound before plugging into their pedalboard.

It’s important to have a good base of tone. Don’t just lather layers of makeup on it. That’s another common mistake I often see when guitarists complain that they can’t get a good tone.

Case Study

As an experiment, plug straight into your amp. Play as you adjust the volume from all the way down to just barely on. Now, turn the amp to 3.

Record this experiment. Pay attention to the change in tone, not the difference in volume.

Preference of Poison

My amps of preference for recording in volume challenged spaces are:

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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

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  • Daniel Dyson

    Couldn’t agree more – I used to have a Vox AC30 and could never really push the amp.. Now I use a simple little 15 watt vox nighttrain head and it sounds so good at lower volumes.. It’s also got the 7 1/2 watt setting if needed. Can’t beat the sound and feel of those tubes I reckon 🙂

  • What about using an attenuator? One way is with one like I have, a Rivera Rock Crusher, that has a line out feature, you can crank the amp and keep the volume way down. If you want to mic it, then you can still keep the volume in check while pushing the amp wherever you need to. These are ways I get around on my VOX AC30 & Bruno C2 amps…

    • Pete Woj

      I personally think external attenuators (Hot Plates, the Rock Crusher, etc etc) are absolutely criminal with how much tone they suck and kill from your signal. I mean no offense to you or your Rock Crusher. Im just my humble opinion. If you like and are happy with the results youre getting, than no worries. If you’re not stoked on your tone, the reason is simple. Great tone comes from 2 things: 1) pushing a lot of air through your speaker/s and 2) hitting the BACK END of your amp really hard (your Power Tubes and Power Transformer…. NOT your Pre Amp tubes). External power attenuator’s do none of those things. Most Master Volume amps sound sub par bc they really only hit the front end of the amp (the pre amp tubes… NOT the power tubes) and pre-amp tube overdrive sounds thin and fizzy. Whats the solution? Play non-master volume, low wattage amps (30 watts at the loudest… the concept of a 50 or 100 watt amp is archaic anyway because 50-100 watt amps were invented in a time where PA systems were crude at best… the musician needed the volume from the amp onstage to reach every spectator). No one needs a 50-100 watt half stack unless theyre playing Arenas or Stadiums so the stage volume can compete with the massive house PA rigs. The only power attenuators that Ive heard or used in the studio and on stage that sound good are built in attenuators that a lot of boutique amp builders use or create such as London Power Scaling found in Reeves Amplifiers. I have one built into my Reeves Custom 30 head and its great for playing in the house… But Id never record with an attenuator. The power attenuator in my Carr Mercury and the rest of the Carr line are very good. The attenuators Joe Morgan uses in his amps are great. You just have to pick and choose your battles.

    • I agree somewhat…. But the reason I got the attenuator I got was because it was so superior in many respects to the hot plates and others. Additionally, one thing I love on my Vox Bruno C2, which is a 6V6 tubed 35 watt monster that is no longer in production unfortunately :(, is that it has a master “off” switch to bypass the master volume. My Vox AC30H2L has no master and that’s where the attenuator is used mostly …

    • Pete Woj

      I know what ya mean about the Vox… I used to have the 15 watt version of the same amp. That was a LOUD 15 watts. Cant imagine the 30! But, good news is it sounds like the Bruno C2 is awesome! 🙂 I mean, if you can dime your amps when you’re recording and its the sound you want, then no harm no foul. Id use the Rock Crusher for bedroom/house playing and for smaller gigs. If YOU dig the sound you get using it when recording, then thats the only thing that matters. I just personally wouldn’t record with an Attenuator of any sort. Even the most transparent ones still alter the amps tone in some way. Bottom line, its a preference thing. Just like when recording and mixing… There’s really no “rules”. If it sounds good, then it is 🙂

    • Hi Pete, I really Love the tone of my Soldano SLO. In live playing it’s my all-time favorite, but in my home studio with my Rivera RockCrusher “It’s Amazing” I do know about sound pressure and the decibel hit to an SM57 but the organic dimensional tone from the SLO (and RockCrusher) is so close I almost couldn’t believe it, Wonderful response and articulation. Engineers also love it (RockCrusher) in the studio, but for live I don’t use it (unless it’s in a small room?). You do know your stuff!! 🙂

    • Pete Woj

      Hey Michael! Glad to hear the RockCrusher is sounding great on your Soldano! 🙂 Thats the bottom line, really. If it sounds great to you than it IS great. I think attenuators have come a long way from the tone sucking Hot Plates… Especially the built in attenuators certain amp companies have developed and use like Carr, Morgan, Reeves, Jackson Ampworks, etc.. It sounds like to me that the RockCrusher is probably the best standalone power attenuator out there at the moment. I think thats a great tool to have because if you love playing high wattage amps (anything over 50 watts) for the tone, then the RockCrusher sounds like the way to go! Thanks for the kind words, Michael, and thanks for sharing your opinion and experience w/ your Soldano and RockCrusher! 🙂 #ToneLife

    • Hi Pete, thank you for the nice conversation! and YES tube tone for guitar is absolute, with companies that you spoke of and a Company like Suhr using “Reactive Load” very similar to the RockCrusher, built into there amps like “Bella” and Badger where you dial down the volume but “Push” the Power Tubes, that blend gives the Voice that you and I have come to appreciate in “Tube Amps” maybe we can talk more in the future about music gear, “Rock On” ../

    • Honda Boy

      Have you used the Rockman Power Soak? A home made one of them was used to record most of the hits at whisper volume such as More Than A Feeling by Boston

    • Marvelicious

      Crap-tons of preamp gain and sustain… yeah, you can get that with a Rockman, but that is hardly the tone for everyone. Can’t stand it myself.

    • Andrew Chute

      i dont understand your comment about an attenuator not allowing the power tubes to be hit. One of my teachers i had in school (they say in the industry, actually that you can’t watch TV and/or listen to radio for more than 15 minutes without hearing something he’s played on) uses a DR. Z SRZ 65 out to a THD cabinet for his dirty side of his rig, and there is a THD Hot Plate between the head and cabinet, so when he turns his volume all the way up, which on that particular amp, takes the master volume out of the circuit, how are the power tubes not being pushed, if the attenuator is after the power tubes, having that signal come into it from the head, through the speaker cable, then another speaker cable out to the cabinet? I’m curious because your post says that “hitting back end of amp hard-power tubes-attenuators do none of these things.” But in this case, the attenuator is after the power tubes are being hit. It’s a separate piece of equipment being fed by a speaker cable, carrying a signal from power tubes that are already being hit with the amp head set to run all the way open, volume and power-wise. thoughts?

    • Jon Merlin

      I appreciate his article but he’s too caught up in his little mantra, the ONLY way blah blah. Of course what you’re saying is correct. And as for him, it’s not really the amp being on 3 it’s the speakers being in a nice place volume-wise. If the amp is clean it sounds no different on 1 or 8. Anyway, I’m glad you bought up that obvious flaw in the logic. I myself run a power attenuator with my Jackson NewCastle30. Even though the amp itself has power scaling, which lets you set how hard the output valves are pushed at any volume the amp can do, it’s still too loud at 1/8watt. So I use an attenuator.

    • Mark Marshall

      that’s not what I was saying. I find an amp has to be on around 3 to start opening up. I find with a lot of tube amps that they don’t sound good just barely on. That point when thee is nothing, and then you light nudge the knob so you just get sound? It sounds thin and choked. The speaker is n to miking that much at that volume… atlas it’s unlikely it’s breaking up. The amp acts differently tho. A Twin reverb on 1.5 sound horrible. I find this to especially be the case with high wattage amps.

    • Mark Marshall

      I’m referring to the fact that tone is affected by how the speaker gets pushed. Vintage overdriven sound isn’t just power tube saturation but the speakers behaving differently at high volume. So an attenuator may allow you to push the power tubes, but not the speaker.

  • Pete Woj

    Good man, Mark. This has been my mantra forever. Truly great tone comes from 2 things: 1) moving a lot of air through a speaker/s 2) hitting your POWER TUBES (NOT Pre-Amp) HARD (and im not talking about overdrive or distortion. There’s nothing more ridiculous than rolling up to a session/live show & seeing some knucklehead playing a 100 watt half stack in a room that holds 250 people. I toured w/ a Fender Vibrolux for a long time & all I heard from FOH Engineers was “turn down”. That was a 40 watt amp & no amp sounds good when its not hitting the power tubes, power tranny, & not moving air out the speaker/s. For fun, I’d like to add a few amps to Marks list of amps I cant record without! (-: 1) Swart Space Tone 6v6se (5 watt, 1×8). Better than ANY vintage 5 watt amp Ive ever heard or played, and I prefer it to the Vic. 2) Carr Mercury (8 watt, 1×12, power scale-able). This thing can go from Fender clean to Marshall Plexi/JCM800 territory at very friendly volumes. 3) Swart AST Pro (ok, Im a Swart artist. Sue me. I LOVE their amps. 18 watt, 1×12). Arguably one of the most versatile amps on the planet. Fender Tweed Deluxe meets a Blackface Deluxe w/ some of Michael’s secret sauce. 4) Shaw Fulltilt 18 (18 watt head). Sounds like a 1958 Vox meets a Matchless DC-30. Heaven. 5) Reeves Custom 30 (30 watt head with power scaling). The best Hiwatt boutique clones on the planet. This amp KILLS. I own and use all 5 of these amps (among others). These are my 5 fav studio amps that cover every tone worth recording imaginable. Keep toning, and play small amps (anything under 30 watts)!!!! 😉

    • Nice man. I tend to not like tones on ANY amp that’s not a 12 inch but that also MIGHT be because I use to rely on pedals more. Heavy dist made smaller speakers whimp out and waffle.

      Now I have a Peavey ValveKing 112 (20 watt) and I am liking the tone pretty well.

      About to get a new LP and thinking of Marshall tone at bedroom levels. What would be your suggestion? Thanks!

    • Pete Woj

      Hey Preacher Cruz! I hear you… 12″ speakers will def give you the headroom and bottom end that your pedals need to do their thing! Congrats on the new Les Paul 🙂 For a Marshall tone at bedroom levels, I’d highly recommend the Carr Mercury (the Fargen Mini Plex MkII is killer too)… I own one and its a magical amp. Everything that Steve Carr makes it top drawer, but the Mercury ticks all your boxes. Its an 8 watt, 1×12 combo (you can get a 1×10 as well, but you said you prefer 12’s) with 1, EL-34 in the power section that can really give you that JCM-800 sound in the 3rd position. The built in power scaling allows you to go from 8 watts to 2 to 1/2 to 1/10th of a watt. Truly remarkable. The clean channel is also extremely pedal friendly. Its not a cheap amp, but its hand-built and hand-wired ensuring it’ll give you a lifetime of enjoyment. Let me know how it goes! Cheers 🙂

    • Wow. Thanks. Sounds nice but not sure I can make that fit in my budget. I should point out the LP I am getting is a very special Epiphone. I am a bang for buck sorta guy. Plus I am not the best player and just play for myself really. Hard to justify expensive gear.

  • billindallas

    I learned a trick many years ago in the studio: the guitar amp was connected to the internal speakers AND also a bass guitar cabinet wrapped in a blanket. The bass cabinet soaked up a lot of power, and the result was the amp running in the “sweet spot” for volume without shattering the glass in the room. We mic’ed the guitar amp as normal.

    • 245

      Nice trick ! Never thought of that. Should be pointed out thought that amp output impedance would need to be adjusted ( if possible ) to match new speaker load otherwise you could blow the amp. Some are more tolerant of this than others. My boogie allows going up no problem but clearly states so in the manual.

  • margova

    One word : “Attentuator.”

  • Erock Scott

    I love how sound people always tell musicians what gear to use….like they think you’re playing their tone and not your own…lol….point is this….guitarists if they know what they are doing have their own sound…and know their gear…it is the sound mans job to get the tone of the amp the way the guitarist set it….just get the damn tone coming from the amp out o your gear….don’t make my amp sound like you think it should its not your tone. This is why guitarists in national acts hire their own Soundmen….to make their band sound the way they want it to sound….not the way you think it should.

    • Jesse Wolfe

      Kinda missed the point didn’t ya Erock? I guess this proves there are trolls everywhere. While I have been practicing for, oh, 36 years (and in case you are missing my point too, I’ve been playing live as well) I like to hear stuff like this. When you think you know everything you stop learning, and this is an awesomely informative article. Some don’t know where to start looking for their tone and some that have been playing for years might need a little piece of information to get what they’re looking for. They want a sound something like they have heard somewhere and want to emulate that with the equipment they have.

  • arya

    Thanks for the article. Do you think I can use an attenuator in the FX loop to reduce the level to the power stage of the tube amp but working out the pre-amp with high volume or the higher current to the power amp tubes is necessary. If that’s the case, how about the power soak downstream of the power amp? I don’t try to get 60 or 65db. I’m ok to get 75 db which is at the comfort level but I like to not get 100 db when I crank up my Crate V33 which sounds not too different than my Carvin 100 watt amp! Thanks again for your advice.

  • 245

    I agree with article in theory but in reality most folks don’t have the cash to have expensive studio amps and then extra live amps or dedicated tube power amps ( 30 w min needed for gigging but 100 w best if you want the valves to last and you’re in a rock band ). You can make 100 w valve amps work for recording. Been doing it with a 2203 for years. It might not be anywhere near as flexible as a 5-15 watt amp but those are a waste of time for most live use. Even my AC 15 is too loud for recording if i dime the master. I understand the article if you’re strictly talking about getting the best sound out of a non master volume amp especially if you’re after power valve overdrive but pushing anything over 15 watts is way ott in a small studio or domestic room anyway. It’s all about compromise and making the tools you have work. Most musicians don’t have a lot of money. Cheap attenuators are available now and work well for this application as long as you aren’t choking them with a big amp on full – pointless anyway and will cost you ! On my 2203 i just use the low input, with preamp gain low and master volume turned up = good base clean tone, then add pedals. Not for the purists but it gets the job done.

  • Steve W

    Here’s my two cents; for what its worth it really depends on what kind of music you play. I have a modded 1980’s Class A Fender Champ 12 with one 6L6 in it that is just phenomenal for blues and light rock. I had Jeff Bober (Budda & East Amps) put the Fender Tonestack mod in it and I swapped out the weak Fender 12″ speaker with a Celestion G12H30 Anniversary. The irony is that the cleans in this amp’s original design were an afterthought; i.e. the amp has two volumes – a master and a gain volume with the gain volume on the amp being designed for scoopy 80’s metal which it fails miserably at – and the reverb is horrible as well. Both are worthless, but the master volume / clean channel – WOW – it really is a thing of beauty. I simply run the gain volume all the way down at 1, shut the reverb of and start from there. That one 6L6 tube is the key because unlike a pair of thinny tinny sounding EL84’s, the tone is FAT FAT FAT especially when you run the right distortion pedal in front of it and is great for blues and lighter rock, but not as good for that harder classic rock 1970’s pure plexi tone. The band I play in does a lot of classic rock covers so for that I to come up with a different rig which took YEARS to find. Due to the volume restrictions in basement practices and for most clubs / venues these days, I first tried a bunch of class A amp designs. Not a one of them could capture the sound of a 1970’s plexi / JMP that my ears were looking for. Most have EL84’s which are too buzzy or muddy when driven and too thin and tinny sounding when you roll your guitar volume back. The class A amps with EL34’s were almost as loud as your standard 50 watt plexi but too muddy and noisy. So after much experimenting, here’s what I came up with.
    The foundation is a 50 watt handwired plexi / JMP clone with a merc output transformer. To tame the overall volume output but get as close as possible to the real deal in terms of those crunchy plexi tones we all love, I had a master volume installed when it was built. My guitar for this rig is an American Deluxe Mahogany Strat with a high output HB in the bridge and two Tex Mex singles. The high output bridge is key because it gives you a lot more tonality when you roll the volume back. I also have a 1995 Les Paul Studio with the 490 in the neck and the 498 high output in the bridge which is also great with this rig. The guitar is then run through a Wampler Pinnacle distortion into the front side of the amp (no effects loop) with the amp then run through a Bogner ported 1×12 cube cab loaded with an 8 ohms creamback G12H-75. Between the Pinnacle which has a lot of sag and the cube cab, you can run the amp master at about 7, gain at 4 with the Pinnacle gain knob maxed and the Pinnacle volume knob at about 5. With some tweaking the result is a REALLY nice 70’s HIWATT sound that breaks up at a much overall lower overall volume far from ear splitting and acceptable for basement band practices. The cube cab is really the bigger part of controlling the overall volume output because of the breakup which occurs earlier than if I run it through my 16 ohms Avatar 2×12 Vintage Cab. Roll your guitar volume back and it cleans up nicely. If you’re playing in a bigger venue and you can turn up the overall volume, the more you turn up the amp master the sweeter and sweeter it sounds. At higher master volumes, the 2×12 16 ohm Avatar cab really shines. Based on the awesome performance of the Bogner cube cab, I figured I would try an experiment. For kicks and giggles, I just bought an old 1980’s Marshall 1550 Bass cabinet loaded with a 1×15″ sidewinder speaker. It was just shipped so I can’t wait to test it out tonight at practice.

  • ijams sum

    I found using the gain OD I wanted depended on what tube was overdriven and had to find one I can play with control instead of fat crunchy lows that gets muddy.
    The only tube that worked like I wanted in the Rebel 30 head was a GE 12ax7 horseshoe getter long plate tube !
    Keeps a nice tight bottom end and the highs sing smoothly clipping as the lows too .
    Real good texture of harmonic sustained highs are hard to get , harshness is the usual result with gain up.
    All vintage tubes are what I collected and it paid off , depends on your amp and what sound your trying to get ?
    Blues and classic rock tone is what I sound like but my clean channel is authentic clean awesome !
    New production tubes except for the Tungsol 12ax7 tubes lack tone and are bland generic like !
    The new production Sovtek 12ax7LPS is the best phase inverter I have ever used to take gain and not muddy things up !
    Trying to get a tone depends on the texture of sound that comes out , and all amps need the right tubes to present the tones you deserve.
    The obsession for this tone will make your sound better as you roll some preamp tubes old or new tubes.
    Were on the quest using different amps and preferences so trust your ears and tray all settings and tubes & speakers !
    Honorable mention for the Eminence legend 1258 ohm 12″ speaker.
    It sound similar too my Vintage 30 but no hint of grit but will crunch awesome in OD !
    You get what the amp puts out no real color added but harmonics come out nice !

    Just sayin , and attenuators are not a good tone or tube option , fact

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