As 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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