A few years ago, Mel Gibson starred in a movie called “The Patriot” in which he was a self-avowed pacifist who was pulled into the Revolutionary War to avenge the murder of his son by a British colonel, played by Jason Isaacs. In one scene where he and two of his young sons are ambushing a British patrol to save another son who was in their custody, Mel turns to the boys and says, “Do you remember what I taught you about shooting?” They replied, “Aim small, miss small.”
I was thinking about “Aim small, miss small” where I was talking to a close friend about an amp he recently purchased off EBay. The amp was one of those 100 Watt Marshall Plexi hand-wired reissues. The seller had done some major work on it, replacing the caps with original mustard caps, swapping out the transformer, swapping out resistors; in other words, lots of things. It was a pretty good price, and my buddy bought it on the basis of the upgrades. Unfortunately for him, when he compared its tone to another 100 Watt Plexi he has but with a PCB board, it sounded stale and “stiff.”
During our conversation about that amp, I shared some thoughts with him, “You know, if it’s one thing I’ve learned about tweaking, you have to do it incrementally. Making wholesale changes provides you with no moving reference point to fall back on, and if you don’t like the end result, you have no place to back up to but the beginning. Looks like what that dude did was make a bunch of changes at once, didn’t like the sound, so he sold the amp.” My friend agreed, but luckily he’s an whiz at electronics so backing out the “upgrades” won’t be too much of an issue for him.
This leads me to a discussion about tweaking. Remember: Aim small, miss small; that is, do small changes – one at a time – so in case you don’t like what you’ve done, you can easily back it up. After all, it’s easy to back up one step than several. Also, try to get the low-hanging fruit first; that is, change what is easiest to change first. In many cases, that could resolve a LOT of tonal issues.
For instance, I wasn’t digging the fizziness of the original pre-amp tubes I had in my Aracom PLX18-BB 18 Watt Plexi clone. I loved the dynamics of the amp, but it had a really fizzy finish. Some people like that, but I wasn’t bonding with it. Since I had a bunch of NOS 12AX7’s, I started there first. But I didn’t just start with replacing all the tubes. Sometimes it’s just a single tube, and since the fizziness was occurring on both channels, I decided to swap out V2 first. That reduced the fizz a ton, but there was still a little left. So I then swapped out both V1 and V3. That improved the tone even more, but it wasn’t quite there as I wanted a bit more bottom-end response. So I swapped out the speaker for one that had a great, tight bottom-end. The tone was perfect after that! I could’ve gone further and had Aracom swap out caps and resistors, or even have a “fizz” cap added to the circuit, as Jeff suggested. But I didn’t need to do any of that because I was able to get the tone I wanted with the simple changes I made. I felt that any further changes were just subjecting myself to the law of diminishing returns.
So to recap the lessons learned:
- Aim small, miss small.
- Get the low-hanging fruit first.