This is a hotly debated topic, and there are great arguments for or against using one. I’m of the former group and have used attenuators to great success over the years. To demonstrate how useful an attenuator can be, I put together a quick video. Here you go:
I wanted to be as non-technical about the usage of an attenuator because there are so many attenuator designs on the market. So I kept this video at a fairly high level. I’ll get into more detail in the next video when I discuss the Aracom PRX150-Pro.
or… Doc Brown in Back to the Future saying, “I finally invented something that works!” Speaking in reference to the Flux Capacitor. Nah, it’s nothing of the sort, but it is by no means less cool. The Flux Density Modulation Speakers are a new approach to attenuation where the attenuation happens right at the speaker! Giving you up to -9 dB attenuation, while keeping your tone, that is what I call cool, and something I must check out! You know me, I’m an attenuator fan, and something like this has me absolutely GAS-ing! From what I could tell from the videos below, the tone is really preserved. Now, mind you that -9 dB of attenuation won’t get you down to conversation levels, but it’ll sure provide enough attenuation to take the bite off the volume. If you need to go lower, hell! Get an Aracom attenuator, and get it down REAL LOW! Check out the NAMM vids!
I’ve been working on a new instrumental for over a month now, called “Strutter.” I think I’ve probably made 50+ recordings of the song, and even though I dig the melody I’ve come up with, I’ve always thought it needed something… more… Couldn’t put my finger on it, but none of my recordings of the song were working for me completely. After I finished recording this final cut which I’ll share below, I believe a lot of my “frustration” had to do with me wanting to only use a single guitar and amp for the recording since I play this song live with only a single guitar.
But it’s different in the studio. I have a lot of options open to me, so I decided to break down and instead of recording the song in its entirety with a single take with a single guitar and amp, I recorded the two different parts of the song with two guitars and two amps. The result knocked my socks off! So the lesson learned is in the studio, you can be truly creative, and for me, I’ll use the tools I need in favor of what I’d like to have. Anyway, here’s the song:
All guitars were recorded at bedroom level using the Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator, with no effects. Estimated output of any of the amps was less than 1 watt! That unit is absolutely amazing!!!
Small room reverb was added during production to give a more spatious effect to the lead tracks, and absolutely no EQ was applied to the guitars.
This song was originally inspired by an image of a supa-mac-daddy-pimp dude struttin’ his stuff down the avenue. 🙂 At least that was the kind of vibe I wanted to capture: 70’s-style guitar-plugged-straight into the amp. It’s a raw kind of tone.
From a structure/feel point of view, what I was after with this song was a contrast in textures. The Rhythm track uses the VRX22 clean channel for that snappy clean attack. For the Lead 1, I wanted use the creamy smoothness of the VRX18 combined with a single coil, and take advantage of the awesome decay of the tube rectifier. For Lead 2, there’s nothing like the pure balls-out sound of the VRX22 drive channel played with a bridge humbucker. The distortion though is ultra smooth, but very complex.
I should be the Aracom Amps poster boy!
I just realized that this song could be an Aracom Amps VRX amp line demo! I make no secret that these are my amps of choice (I have three of them). Jeff Aragaki’s amp designs are absolutely killer – that’s why I buy his equipment.
I walked into my garage/studio this morning and looked over to my gear – there’s a lot (though probably not as much as I’ve seen from other gear sluts’ pictures). Peering over my collection, the thought struck me: What if I could only have one of each type of gear… What would I choose? What would be the basis for my decision?
After ruminating on this subject over breakfast and coffee, I decided that I’d choose the gear that gives me the most versatility with respect to tone and usability given the various types of music I play. So based upon that here are my choices:
Squier Classic Vibe Tele 50’s
Aracom VRX22 with 1 X 12 Cab
BOSS TU-2 Tuner
Aracom PRX150-Pro Attenuator
Those four things will get me through any gig or recording session. Not to say that they’re my favorite pieces of gear, but that combination will give me the most versatility with respect to versatility and usability.
What? No Goldie? Man, I love that guitar, don’t get me wrong. But that guitar is so heavy, I don’t gig with it unless I’m at a place where I have to sit down. The Tele, on the other hand, is super-light, and with its pine body, it’s very resonant, so I can get thick, almost humbucker-type sounds to nice trebly tones. Goldie offers that up and more, but she loses on usability in a variety of venues due to her weight.
The Aracom VRX22 happens to be my favorite amp in any case, but it’s my favorite because of its versatility. Once I had Jeff do the footswitch mod so I could switch between channels, and remove the clean channel from the master volume, there’s nary a tone – except for super heavy, high gain – that I can’t produce with that amp.
With respect to my TU-2 tuner, yeah, I know, there are much better ones out there, but it’s what I’ve got. But despite that, I’d rather be in tune than to have a cool effect, so that pedal would stay.
Finally, the Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator will always be a part of any rig I put together because it allows me to set limits to my max volume in any venue. Since I play mostly small to medium venues, this box is essential for dialing in just the right amount of volume for the house. And even if I have to play at super low volumes where the Fletcher-Munson effect comes into play, I can rest assured that when my amp is miked, I’ll get my true tone.
I was actually surprised by my own choice of guitar primarily because Goldie is such a tone machine. But for as much as I move around when performing, lugging a heavy guitar is definitely not my cup of tea; especially if it makes me throw out my back, which I did a couple of weeks back. But it also says loads about that Squier Tele. I’ve got some great guitars, but that little $329 wonder creates such awesome tones and it plays so great, that it’s a clear winner. I might’ve gotten lucky with my particular guitar because I’ve read some user reviews that their tone is inconsistent. I’ll play a few more to see how that holds up.
When I first reviewed the Fane Medusa 150, though I gave it a pretty good rating at 4.5 Tone Bones, I wasn’t really blown away by its tone because of its big bottom end, and recommended that the speaker be put into a 2 X 12 balanced out by a speaker with more top-end sparkle. What I didn’t consider was how it could be used to balance out the tone of a naturally bright amp.
Take, for instance, my review on the Aracom PLX18 BB Trem. One of the nits I had with the combo was that the Eminence Red Coat Red Fang was way too bright for the already naturally bright amp, causing me to bleed off highs when I was mixing the song. FYI, EQ’ing my guitars in my recordings is usually a real no-no with me because I like the pure sound of my guitars and amps on a recording. The only things I’ll add in production are reverb or a touch of delay if necessary. I love the tone of the PLX18, but that speaker just didn’t work for me.
Enter the Fane Medusa 150. That speaker is actually on loan from Tonic Amps. I’ve actually had it for a few months now, and I keep on forgetting to drop it off at Darin’s new place. Well, it looks like I’m probably going to buy it off him after all because I swapped out the Red Fang for the Medusa 150 in the PLX18, and suddenly the seas parted and a way was made clear! The PLX18 tone was completely transformed! Instead of being a purely bright amp, the PLX18’s tone became much more balanced. The highs and high-mids were still present but were much more tame. This resulted in a much richer tone.
As you may know, I’ve been working on a new song called “Strutter.” I actually had the song completely recorded, but I hadn’t finished it because I just haven’t been completely satisfied with the lead guitar tone. When I got the PLX18, I knew it would be the amp I’d use to record the song. But with the stock speaker, and even with my Jensen P12N, it still wasn’t cutting it for me. I even mentioned that the amp loves the Red Coat “The Governor,” and it does, but I still wasn’t completely satisfied. Now, with the Medusa 150 in the cabinet, I’ll be completing the song. Let’s compare, shall we?
Here’s the original, recorded with the PLX18 BB with the stock Red Coat. I’m playing my LP copy, Prestige Guitars Heritage Elite:
Now, here’s a clip of the song with the Fane Medusa 150. I’m playing Goldie in her bridge pickup:
Sorry for the differences in volume levels. But where the Red Fang has much more presence, and an in-your-face presentation, the Medusa’s tone is so much more three-dimensional and more refined. The mids and highs are still present and incredibly articulate, but they’re so much less piercing! And one thing that I noticed immediately with the Medusa is the clarity of the notes through the entire EQ spectrum, whereas the Red Fang seemed to lose a bit of clarity at high-gain settings – especially when I play those transition chords. Note that the amp and mix settings stayed completely the same between the two recordings, and both guitars were played through the Trem channel which was completely dimed. I also removed the wah from the second clip because I didn’t feel the need to mix it up. For that part, I did stack my KASHA Overdrive and Geek Driver overdrive pedals, but set to unity gain, and to add just a touch of compression and sustain. Not much, but just a touch.
So what’s the moral of the story? Simple: Amp and speaker combinations are critical to good tone. Some speakers, like my P12N work with a bunch of different amps. But some speakers, like the Medusa, work much better at balancing out certain amp characteristics. I’ve learned a good lesson here: You have to try out gear in different configurations and situations. Had I not tried to experiment with the Medusa, I probably would’ve just passed it off as a good speaker that belongs in a 2 X 12 cabinet with a bright speaker.
By the way, both clips were recorded at conversation levels using the fantastic Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator, by far the best attenuator on the planet, from my perspective. I just couldn’t live without this device!
Ever 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!