In the previous tutorial I examined how the guitar competes with other instruments in a typical band set-up because of overlapping frequencies.
I also offered solutions, such as:
- Choose a guitar wisely, as wood, pickups, and so on have a bearing on being heard
- When working with another guitarist, go for the opposite of their set-up, such as guitar, amplifier and so on
- Point the speakers at your head
- Put distance between yourself and other instruments, such as drums and keyboards
In this tutorial I’ll explain the choosing and setting up an amplifier.
Before starting with the input, consider the output.
The Most Overlooked Part of the Sound
Whilst choosing the right guitar, amp and effects is important, the guitar speaker is often ignored. After all, speakers are speakers, right.
My epiphany occurred at a guitar show when a Celestion demonstrator switched between three speaker cabinets whilst playing. Despite all being from the same manufacturer, the difference from speaker to speaker was night and day.
If you’ve a nice amp, the accompanying speaker’s likely to be of a decent quality. If not, you should consider an upgrade. Typically £70 to £150, it’s a tonal improvement far cheaper than a new amp or guitar.
You could spend hours staring at frequency response graphs, or read the many arguments as to alnico versus ceramic magnets.
The simplest solution, however, is to find guitar sounds you like, then research the speakers that are being used.
Alternatively, try searching YouTube for guitar speaker comparison. Ensure you’re listening on decent speakers or headphones to really hear the differences.
Choosing an Amp
In an ideal world—amps are amps—they’d all do the same job. If that were true, however, there wouldn’t be the huge range of makes and models that exists currently.
It is true that some amps have different or pronounced characteristics.
Certain brands have become synonymous with particular styles or tones. For example, if I say Marshall, you’re unlikely to think of your favourite jazz guitarist.
The point I’m making here is, if you’ve a certain sound in mind, some amps are better suited than others, and that may help you get the right tone straight away. That said, don’t be swayed by brand image—if it sounds right to you, then it is.
Now to examine the major controls.
These differ from one manufacturer to another, but, broadly speaking, you usually have the following:
- Gain/Pre Gain
- Volume/Post Gain
- Mid (sometimes omitted)
There can be other controls, such as Presence, but I'll concentrate on those listed.
Gain and Volume
Everyone knows what volume means—more is louder, less is quieter. The word gain’ is often associated with distortion. This is true, but only because excessive usage leads to it.
The best way to understand how they work is to view gain as the input signal, and volume as the output signal.
In simple terms, the sound is cleaner if you keep the gain low and the volume high.
Conversely, you’ll hit distortion sooner if you increase the gain whilst lowering the volume.
When playing a single channel amp, I’ll typically set the gain-to-volume ratio as 3:4. In other words, if my volume’s at 100%, the gain’s set to 75%.
Playing gently gives me a clean sound, but the gain ensures punch and robustness. Hitting the strings harder, the sound crunches up. For more dirt, an overdrive pedal set to low gain/high volume produces a fat yet articulate sound.
Short for equalisation, this refers to controls adjusting frequency levels within an audio signal. On the amp, this is covered by the Bass, Mid, and Treble controls. But these names, like the controls themselves, aren’t very precise.
Whilst the amp’s EQ controls are more useful than a single tone knob, they’re hardly the surgical tools common to recording studios. Most lack a Q control, which governs the size of the alteration being made. Without this, you’ve no idea how many frequencies are being affected.
Furthermore, even when these controls are set flat—neither cutting nor boosting—a lot of very famous amps have a slight dip in that all-important mid-range. Boosting the Middle does little to counter this, so cutting them makes it a lot worse.
Mids are important.
Home on the Midrange
A guitar’s typical frequency response is 80-4500Hz, putting it in the following ranges:
- Bass (60-250Hz)
- Low Mids (250-500Hz)
- Mids (500-2000Hz)
- High Mids (2000-4000Hz)
- Presence (4000-6000Hz)
The guitar’s therefore considered to be a predominantly mid-range instrument. With this in mind, here’s something to avoid.
Beloved of metal bands, the infamous Smile EQ refers to mids cut, bass and treble boosted. As preserving the mid-range is crucial, this approach is a bad idea. Trust me, for every gigging guitarist cutting their mids, there’s a sound engineer boosting them.
Therefore, keep the mids up, but don’t go crazy as you could create a very nasal, cocked wah sound.
As for bass, use less than you might think. Adding treble is fine, but too much induces harshness.
Set the controls halfway, and adjust from there. A good rule of thumb is dialling each control up to the point where it’s obnoxious, and then back a bit.
You may have seen an amp with stickers around the controls. This is the set-and-forget approach, something I wouldn’t endorse, as the sound changes from room to room, venue to venue.
Achieving clarity in a band is having the right tools and understanding how they work. In terms of the amp:
- Research the one that suits you best
- A different speaker can completely change the sound
- Balance volume and gain according to needs
- Preserve the midrange
- Easy on the bass
- Go bright but not harsh
- Avoid Smile EQ
- Set EQ according to the room you’re in
In the next tutorial, I’ll demonstrate the effects that can improve clarity in a live environment.
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