For me, an attenuator was a key component in my live signal chain for many years. As I was playing live mostly in a church setting, in order to get my amp to “growl” levels, I had no other choice but to use output attenuation to control my volume. And for this, I used several attenuators such as the Dr. Z AirBrake, then moved onto a couple of different models from Aracom (which, to me, is the gold standard in transparency). I currently own the Aracom DRX, and I love it. With its dual levels of attenuation, it gives me the ability to use my two-channel amp and set different attenuation levels for it. Very cool.
But since I broke up the church band and joined a classic rock cover band, I haven’t used the DRX – at all. The reason is that most of the songs that my band plays don’t require a lot of distortion; and not that my church stuff did, but output volume is so much less of an issue now than it was with my church band as we play venues where a higher volume is expected.
Plus, once I got the EHX Soul Food overdrive pedal, a lot of things changed for me; when I need overdrive, I just click that pedal on, and I’ve got that great, creamy-smooth overdrive sound that the Soul Food produces. I still set my amp up at the edge of break-up, but most of my distortion comes from my pre-amp tubes – and it’s not that much, as I get the overdrive I need from my pedal. I just don’t have a pressing need to push my power tubes into saturation. That might change, but I’m pretty satisfied with my sound right now.
All that said, I still use the attenuator in my home studio. I couldn’t record my tube amps without one. But even in that case, I’m actually recording at a bit higher of a volume than I have in the past because I’ve realized that there’s a lot to be said when a speaker is pushing air. I use a Sennheiser e609 to close-mic my cab, then I set a ribbon mic about 3 feet away to capture the sound at a distance. With my particular setup, close-miking doesn’t capture the rich tones that issue from my cab. What I’ve found in a live situation is that my speaker produces some wonderful lows that don’t seem to get captured close-in. And that seems to only happen when I play the amp at higher than bedroom levels.
So… To attenuator or not to attenuate? Well… I guess my answer is: It depends…