Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Feel of an Amplifier

I never had a noise issue with the neighbors. When I was starting out, I learnt to shred on a PODxt played through my computer speakers, so the volume was always under control. When I now have the room space and the funds to purchase an actual amp, I seem to have outgrown my shredder phase, and by association, the need for a tube amp.

That being said, I have experienced the joy of a tube amp at its sweet spot. And sometimes, those sweet spots are unavoidably loud. I fondly remember a day in Sydney when I heard an authentic early-era Marshall (with the block logo!) with KT-66 tubes in it. The shop owner grinned at me when I enquired about it and said, "Get ready to hear how heaven sounds like!" It was non-master volume, and when he strummed that E major chord, I almost nearly thought I saw a reinactment of the famous guitar-amp-sends-Michael-Fox-flying scene. Except there was no broken glass. Or people flying.

Amps are made to be loud. The one aspect of playing through an amplifier that digital modeling cannot capture is the feel of the amp, when the speaker and cabinet vibrate, transferring that mechanical energy to the surroundings.

I can think of three contributory factors to the feel of an amp:

1. Cabinet size. Closed-back, open-back, speaker configuration of 1, 2 or 4, cabinet material, whether the cabinet is enclosed with the electronics (like a combo), or separate, height and angle of elevation--these things affect how the cabinet vibrates. In my opinion, amp stands are less helpful than they appear to be. Although they help to point an amp to the guitarist, you will lose a lot of low end because the amp is no longer in contact with the ground. 

2. Power. Many of today's amps are headed towards the micro-amp head design, with smaller wattage ranges from 5W all the way down to 1/4W. Having watched these adverts, I think while the amp makers mean well and present a simple amp design, they over-simplify the role of power in an amp. A small tube amp with a small wattage will never sound big--the speakers aren't being driven hard enough (and probably not big enough either). In my experience, a guitar amp starts to truly sing when the power section runs at 30W. Remember, a tube amp running at 30W is a lot louder than a solid state amp running at 30W.

3. Speaker size. Again, as a result of the micro-amp design, the market is seeing a rise in popularity of 10" and 8" speaker cabs. Now, this is not to say that amps in small speakers are inferior, they're just different--anyone who's played a Supro amp or a Fender Champ will tell you that despite its tiny size, the amp can serve up an incendiary tone. The general rule of thumb is that the smaller the amp and the speakers, the faster the amp breaks up when the volume is turned up. And because the speakers are small, the breakup sounds different to a larger cab being driven hard. Both kinds of tones are palatable and definitely usable; it's just a matter of taste.

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