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Archive for the ‘attenuator’ Category

PRX-front-543Ever since I started this blog, I’ve talked about attenuators, and how they’ve enabled me to get tones out of my amp at reasonable volume levels that I could only previously get at super-high volumes. But before I get into the discussion part of this article, take a listen to this clip (it’s the same clip I recorded with my previous article on the Mullard ECC83):

Here are some details about the recording:

  • I plugged directly into my Aracom VRX22, which then fed into my Aracom PRX150-Pro, then out to a custom 1 X 12 with a Jensen P12N
  • The amp was in the drive channel with master at 6, volume (gain) at 6, and tone at 6 (the tone on this amp adds a little gain as well as an edge)
  • The PRX150-Pro was set at maximum attenuation
  • Volume-wise, this was talking conversation level!!!
  • No EQ was applied to the guitar – what you’re hearing is the raw tone.

With respect to “maximum attenuation,” I was in variable mode with the variable sweep pot all the way to its left extent. I shared my amp and PRX settings with Jeff Aragaki this morning, and he estimated that the output power was approximately 0.04 Watt!

Many people are apt to talk about how the speaker needs to move air, and that an attenuator doesn’t allow that to happen. But that clip simply demonstrates that with the right combination of equipment – and in my case, also a great set of tubes – you don’t necessarily need that speaker cone breakup to get great tone for recording purposes. Yes, SPL’s do play a big role in your overall tone, but to be able to achieve the kind of tone I was able to get at that very low volume level is nothing short of amazing!

So what about an attenuator being life-changing?

Maybe that’s a bit strong of a phrase, but ever since I’ve been using attenuators, and especially since I’ve gotten my Aracom PRX150-Pro, I’ve been able to explore tonal territory that I could previously only achieve using pedals – and only simulating at that! Take overdrive pedals for instance. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m crazy about them. I probably will still be nuts about overdrive pedals, but there’s one thing an overdrive pedal can’t do that an attenuator allows me to do, and that’s to get the thick, natural overdrive tone of my amp. Don’t get me wrong, I still use them, but I use them now more for tonal accents to my drive tone rather than giving me my drive tone. That’s very profound; especially for an overdrive pedal freak like me!

Here’s a good example that I just recorded. This clip is part of a new song idea I’ve been playing around with. Setup is pretty much the same as above, but for the rhythm, I’m running Strat into my Kasha overdrive pedal to get a jangly, crisp tone. The lead is Goldie plugged straight into my VRX22. I did mix and do a simple master on the recording, but the guitars were all recorded raw, with no EQ. In my DAW, I added some reverb to both parts and a touch of delay to the lead, but that’s it.

Speaking of pedals, since I’ve started using a high-end attenuator (there are others such as Alex’s and the Faustine Phantom), I’ve actually started using pedals in general much less. I’ve really relying on the natural tone and sustain of my amp. For instance, I’ve found that I’ve only been using reverb in the studio. When I play out, I just don’t bother. In fact, for the last few weeks, I’ve only been taking two pedals to gigs with me: My BOSS TU-2 Tuner and my VRX22’s channel switcher. Same goes with my Reason Bambino.

Life-changing? Probably not, but definitely approach-changing. I may personally endorse the PRX150-Pro, but there are others out there. If you really want to hear what your amp has to offer when it’s fully cranked with the power tubes glowing, then you owe it to yourself to get a good attenuator!

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Mullard Zaerix 12AX7Conventional tube-amp wisdom states that you get the most bang for your buck by replacing your pre-amp tubes. I’ve been a believer of this for quite awhile, and have tried out all sorts of pre-amp tubes in my amps over the years. A couple of days ago, I wrote that I had installed a new Mullard ECC83 (12AX7) into my Aracom VRX22. This particular Mullard is a Zaerix-labled ECC83 that probably came from the GDR (I didn’t look at the numbers – I really don’t care, for that matter). All I know is that it made a HUGE difference in the way my amp sounds. The overdrive instantly became smoother and more focused without top-end artifacts, and the notes are still very defined even at high overdrive settings on my amp.

The clip below says it all. I recorded this clip playing in the bridge pick up of Goldie, plugged straight into the VRX22, which then fed into the ever-so-awesome Aracom PRX15-Pro attenuator. The amp’s master, tone, and volume knobs were all set at 6 (about 2pm on the amp), and the clip was recorded at bedroom level!

To my ears, the VRX22 sounds like a much bigger amp than its 22 Watts! I’m really in tonal heaven right now!

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For a long time, I’ve had this thing for getting a big guitar sound in my recordings. I’ve done a bunch of different things like doubling, overdubbing, signal splitting between two amps, and the like. But recently, I got a couple of pieces of gear that is allowing me to explore yet another way to get a big guitar sound: Re-amping. Re-amping is essentially taking an already amplified guitar signal, and running it through another amplifier. This is not like adding a gain stage because that usually involves multiple pre-amp sections. With re-amping, you’re building on a fully amplified signal that has passed through the power tubes. The result is VERY different in tonal character from just moving the signal through another gain stage.

There are lots of ways to re-amp, so I won’t go into a lot of detail. But I will share how I do it. Ever since I got my Aracom PRX15-Pro, I’ve been contemplating this very thing because of its line out which could be used in a variety of ways; such as running the signal into a PA (since it’s unbalanced, you need a DI box), or taking that line level, and running it into another amp to re-amplify the signal yet again. The cool thing about the PRX150-Pro is that I can simultaneously run an output to a speaker, then the amp that’s doing the re-amping can also have it’s own audio output.

Now here’s something even more cool! I have a Reason Bambino, which also has a line out. It’s a balanced line out, so it can go directly into a board, and doesn’t need to be hooked up to an external cab. The tone coming from the line out of the Bambino is very nice. I suppose that I could’ve miked the Bambino from another cabinet, but I did want to test the line out.

In any case, here’s a diagram of how I had everything hooked up:

VRX22-ReAmp

In a nutshell, I plugged my guitar directly into my Aracom VRX22, which ran into the PRX150-Pro. I hooked up an external cab to the attenuator, placed a mic in front of the cabinet that ran into Channel 1 of my audio interface. Then, I ran the line out of the attenuator to the input of the Reason Bambino. From there, I went directly from the Bambino into Channel 2 of my audio interface.

I set up a clip from a song I wrote and added two tracks that took input from the two channels. I also panned Channel 1 full left and Channel 2 full right. Once I had the levels worked out, I recorded a solo over the existing music. Once the recording was finished, I took the Bambino’s signal slightly out of phase with Channel 1, to make it sound like two guitars are playing simultaneously. The effect is totally cool, and it creates a very in-your-face, big guitar sound! Here’s the clip:

Note that this is a kind of a different way to employ re-amping, which basically runs two amps in a series then out a single output. The way I employed it, the re-amped signal is a component of the overall package.

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Aracom Amps VRX18 18 Watt Head

Aracom Amps VRX18 18 Watt Head

I’m falling in love again with my Aracom VRX18. This was the amp that first got me introduced to Aracom and my good friend Jeff Aragaki. My amp is actually a tweaked version of the stock VRX18 as it sports an EZ81 tube rectifier, plus a tweaked circuit that adds a bit more sag and sustain. The result is just a gorgeous overdriven tone that really brings out the best of the EL84 power tubes.

One thing about EL84 amps is that if they’re done right, they have a distinctive overdrive tone that creates a subtle top-end fizz when they’re overdriven. I’ve played others that drive the power tubes too much, and they sound very harsh and incredibly compressed. Jeff did this amp right, and while the power tubes do indeed compress a bit, the overdrive tone retains its open character, while adding that nice top-end fizziness that EL84 amp lovers have come to appreciate.

The clip below is an excerpt from a slow blues song I wrote. It features my beloved Goldie plugged straight into the Aracom VRX18, and it also features the insane Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator! Believe it or not, the amp was recorded at just above loud conversation levels! We’re talking less than 1/10 of a Watt, and the amp still retains its tone and dynamics! Anyway, here’s the clip:

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Aracom Amps PRX150-Pro AttenuatorAs many know, I’m a big fan of attenuators. In the past I’ve owned a couple and have tried out several. And with the addition of the Aracom PRX150-Pro to my rig, I’ve finally got a device that is helping me realize all the tonal goodness my amps have to offer. But this entry isn’t about the Aracom attenuator. There are a few attenuators that have entered the market in the recent past including the Faustine Phantom and others that are having the same effect on axe slingers and how they approach their tone.

So what’s the big deal? Most folks know how an attenuator operates. It sits between your amp and your speaker(s), and squelches the output signal from your amp which results in a lower output volume, so you can drive your amp to high gain levels and not shatter your eardrums. That’s the basic premise behind attenuators in general. But up until recently, attenuation came at a price, and that is the loss of tone and dynamics, or completely changed tone at higher attenuation levels; to put it simply, loss of tonal quality. I’m willing to bet that this very thing has kept lots of people from using an attenuator.

But with the new breed of attenuators hitting the market, loss of tonal quality is much less of an issue, if it’s an issue at all. Now you can bring your output volume WAY down, and be assured that the tonal quality you’ve worked so hard to achieve is still there.

So how will this change the way we approach our tone? I would venture to guess that many guitarists have really never known what their amp sounds like fully cranked up – at least for extended periods of time. Sure, if you’re a pro and regularly play huge venues, you know what it sounds like. But for us mere mortals who rarely play in more than a dance club, we’ve never been able to fully experience the cranked up tone of our amps, and that’s where a great attenuator comes into play.

When I hooked up my PRX150-Pro, the first thing I did was to set it on load mode and turn the variable to full attenuation, then dimed the master and volume on my amp to see what it would sound like. I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of new tones that were suddenly available to me: rich harmonics, tons of sustain, and incredible touch sensitivity. It was as if a whole new world was opened up to me.

With my old attenuator, I rarely went to real high levels of attenuation because it made my tone sound weak and lifeless.  Plus, I didn’t want to burn out my tubes – which I learned the hard way when I cranked my amp while hooked up to the attenuator. But with the Aracom attenuator, I knew I could crank it as high as I wanted to and still be safe. What this means is that I now have access to a wider landscape of tones and dynamics that I can also safely reach. And that’s another feature of the new breed of attenuators: They appear to be much safer to use than the older designs out there.

Here’s an interesting question I got from a buddy of mine: Will I get rid of my overdrive pedals as a result now being able to get the fully cranked tone of my amp? Not on your life! 🙂 I love how they add color to my tone. But I will tell you this: Now that I can crank up my amp to high gain levels without the concomitant high volume levels, I’m actually not using my overdrive pedals as much. Oh, I still use them because they add certain characteristics that aren’t possible with my natural overdrive tone; just not as much as I used to because when I want just straight amp overdrive, I just crank my amp. But when I want to use them, I run them through the clean channel of my amp that has lots of clean headroom, so I can take advantage of the tone that they offer.

So is it a significant change to how we approach our tone? Possibly. I know of some folks who’ve completely stopped using overdrive pedals altogether as a result of using an attenuator, and use a clean boost or even just their volume knob on their guitar to get the lead volume they want. Me? I like to have a few different “brushes” that I can use to create different textures, but in either case, getting that cranked up tone naturally without shattering eardrums is pretty huge.

I think the folks who will gain the most from these great new attenuators are the home studio musicians. Imagine being able to record a screaming guitar solo, and not have the wife or neighbors yelling at you to turn down your volume! I regularly do my recording into the wee hours of the morning, so having an attenuator has been a godsend. But up until I got my PRX150-Pro, I had to wait to record solos until it was day when I could turn up my amp to a gain level that didn’t get me yelled at, as my other attenuators just didn’t give me the tone I needed at high attenuation levels. Even if I used an overdrive pedal, it doesn’t sound good unless it’s working with your amp and pushing your pre-amp tubes, and that takes juice! With a great, transparent, or non-tone-sucking attenuator, you can push your amp hard, and keep your volume under control!

I know of a lot musicians who poo-poo the use of an attenuator. But an attenuator can do wonders for gigging. Want to make the sound guys happy? Here’s another way to look at it: With an attenuator, you can focus on your tone, and not projecting out to the audience. Get enough volume to hear yourself on stage, then let the sound guys do their thing. PA technology has come a long way since the early days of rock and roll, where amps had to be played loud to get the sound out to the audience. Also, if you think about it, speakers are highly directional. If you want to disperse your sound, use the PA.

There’s been an interesting thread that I’ve been lurking on The Gear Page entitled, “Sound guys think I’m too loud.” Someone suggested early on that the original poster could use an attenuator or a smaller amp to reduce their volume. The suggestion of using an attenuator went largely ignored, but as I followed this thread and read all the various insights, using an attenuator is the perfect solution for this.

I’ve heard a lot of the complaints about attenuators in the past, and I’ve also had my issues with them. But with the new breed of attenuators, tone suck is no longer an issue. And that tonal quality will be sure to change how guitarists approach their performances.

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Aracom Amps PRX150-Pro AttenuatorAracom Amps has just posted a page on their site which features Gene Baker – luthier of the famed Baker Guitars and now of Fine Tuned Instruments producing “B3” guitars – demonstrating the transparency of the Aracom PRX150-Pro Attenuator at various attenuation levels.

Gene has also provided commentary on the recording and how no EQ adjustments were made to the amp – even down to bedroom levels! This is a re-affirmation of what I’ve been saying all along about this awesome device! The PRX150-Pro simply retains the tone you work hard for – no matter how much attenuate your signal; and more importantly eliminating the need to compensate with EQ.

Check out Aracom’s Gene Baker audio page here!

Having someone like Gene Baker demonstrate the capabilities of the PRX150-Pro is huge! Gene is an incredible guitarist!

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I’ve often extolled the virtues of a cranked amp here at GuitarGear.org and elsewhere. My belief is that when you’ve got both your pre-amp and power tubes working, you get the real character out of your amp. There’s something that happens to your tone once you get juice into your power tubes that adds a certain dynamicism and complexity that you just can’t get with just your pre-amp tubes. Unfortunately, most mere mortals, like myself, don’t normally play venues that that will allow us to crank our amps to the point where the power tubes of our amp come into play.

Take, for instance, my good buddy Phil. He’s the lead singer of a bar band called Phil ‘N The Blanks. Up until recently he was playing through a Marshall DSL100 JCM2000 100 Watt head into a Marshall 1936 2 X 12 cab. Talk about too much amp for his gigs! I ran sound for him at a gig a couple of months ago, and could only turn his volume and gain controls to about 3 each before he stepped on the band entirely; not to mention peeling faces off! Since he’d owned the DSL100, he’d never played above 5 because it was way too loud.

Recently, I lent him my Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator so he could squelched down the volume but crank up his amp. He couldn’t believe his ears! He was finally able to get the gain up in his amp where his power tubes would break up. It was like a completely different amp once he heard the cranked up tone. I had been telling him for months that there’s really nothing quite like a cranked up amp, and for the first time since he owned the amp he was able to hear for himself what I had been talking about. Before that, he was on tonal training wheels! 🙂

Ultimately, he decided against going with an attenuator, but he did a very smart thing: He purchased a low-wattage amp, the Marshall Haze MHZ15 15 Watt amp. It hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m excited for him because he’ll be able to crank that amp at a reasonable volume level, as the lower wattage amp will break up a lot earlier, and he’ll be able to reap the benefits of the response of his cranked amp!

1 Watt is LOUD!

But here’s the funny thing: 15 Watts can still be freakin’ loud when cranked! The following chart shows SPL at 1 meter vs. Wattage (I got this from the Aracom site where Jeff discusses understanding attenuation).

POWER VS. LOUDNESS CHART

Watts

SPL (db)

Loudness

0.0078

79

Passenger car at 10 (60-80dB)

0.0156

82

0.0312

85

Vacuum cleaner

0.0625

88

Major Road Noise (80-90dB)

0.125

91

Noisy factory

0.25

94

0.5

97

1

100

Jack hammer at 1m

2

103

4

106

8

109

Accelerating motorcycle at 5m

16

112

32

115

Hearing Damage (short term exposure)

64

118

Rock concert

128

121

256

124

512

127

Jet at 100 meters (110-140 dB)

1024

130

Threshold of pain

What’s amazing from the table is how loud 1 Watt is at 1 meter! It’s as loud as a jack hammer! And 0.0312 Watt is as loud a vacuum cleaner! Jeff got this information from a well-known study done in 1933 by Harvey Fletcher and W A Munson about human hearing response. For those people who say, “P-shah” to low wattage amps, just reference this chart.

Granted, there is a certain mojo about a 100 Watt amp cranked up – even a 50 Watt amp. But most people other than those playing large venues can crank their amps to experience that mojo. But in spite of that, there’s been a movement in the industry these past few years towards lower wattage amps. I think a big part of the reason for this is the improvement in PA gear over the years. Want to get your sound out there? Mic your amp. After all, all you need is stage volume so you can hear yourself. Let the sound guys project your sound out.

My buddy Vinni Smith of V-Picks does exactly that. As amazing as he is with a guitar, he gigs with a Roland Cube 30! He just gets his stage volume, then has his amp miked to get his guitar out to the audience. This dude gigs alot, and he’s living proof that you don’t need a lot of power to get perform. As long as you can get your tone, you’re golden!

Circling back to the title of this article, there really isn’t anything like the sound and feeling of a cranked amp. Especially with tube amps, when the power tubes have juice, they add all sorts of things to your tone such as compression, a different kind of breakup and even more touch sensitivity. You can get that in a couple of ways:

  1. Get an attenuator. There are several on the market, including the increasingly popular Faustine Phantom, but my bet is on the Aracom PRX150-Pro, as it takes a completely different approach to attenuation than all others. I’ve never played an attenuator as transparent is this.
  2. Get a lower wattage amp. I’m not even going to list what amps to buy as there are tons of fantastic amps – both boutique and mainstream – on the market. Just make sure you give them a listen.

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