How A Great Amp Can Impact Your Live Sound

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Marshall JVM-410 Satriani Signature Amp

The Problem

Maybe you’ve experienced this: Your amp is a nightmare. You’re spending hours tweaking your sound, messing with the EQ, trying to figure out which pedals might help, maybe compression, maybe even an outboard EQ, and you just can’t get that amp to sound right when you’re playing with a band.

It sounds OK when you’re playing by yourself, but the minute you throw the band in the mix, it sounds muddy – your “sound” gets lost – and you find yourself cranking the volume up to levels that make your band-mates go running for the hills.

It might be time to step back and evaluate the entire band’s tone / volume, or even get a new amp.

The Amp’s dual purpose

The first purpose is obvious. It’s why any beginning guitarist eventually goes out and buys that bigger amp – loudness. You’ve got to be heard. And while an amp’s main purpose is volume – hell it’s called an amp – its other purpose is to make you sound good, and to make you fit into the mix.

Cheap amps are good for making you louder – but they can be a pain when it comes to sounding “good”.

If your amp doesn’t sound good – you’ll be tempted to turn it up because you’re looking for something else – something that your brain will likely interpret as volume, because it’s something you’re expecting to be there, but you’re not hearing it.

A live band is still a mix

When you’re playing with others – be it practice or live, there’s still a mix going on (just like recording), and it’s one of the commonly overlooked elements when practicing with a band – especially for younger bands. You’ve got to make sure you sound good from a mix perspective.

It’s easy to wander in, strap on the guitar, and shift your band’s focus to learning the songs, and tightening them up. But few younger bands (I’ve even seen this with some really talented experienced bands too) take the time to get their levels and individual EQs to sound good together.

Then, come gig time, they wonder why they didn’t sound good.

Your tonal “place” in the band

You’ve got to find your tonal place in the band – that slice or chunk of the sonic spectrum where you’re expecting to hear your guitar. It’s often helpful to listen to the band without playing. I’m a firm believer that the guitarist should be the last person to turn up his volume (besides the vocalist).

Whether you’re playing delta blues, speed metal, country, or jazz, there should be a place for your guitar’s sound to “sit”. An empty place that you can fill. If there isn’t, you should investigate what your band-mates are doing with their sound. (Queue up the battle music, but it has to be done!)

An amp’s “tightness”

When I hear an amp, I look for this quality. It’s defined (to me) as a non muddy sound. It’s when an amp has a specific chuck of the audio spectrum and doesn’t fill too man of the frequencies that your ear can hear. What you’re looking for is presence without volume. If you’re using a cheaper amp – the manufacturer probably hasn’t taken the time to make sure your amp has this quality.

You’ll know your sound and you’ll  play better

To sound good, your quiet more subtle notes should sound quieter, and your loud notes should ring out and be heard – without being too overpowering. Sound obvious – but if you’re compensating for a poor tone with volume, this won’t be the case for you. I’ve heard many guitarists live who were very talented, but they were just too loud or too quiet.

Once you establish a good tone, you can set your volume perfectly, and you’ll start to notice the nuances in your playing that make use of that tone and your volume – and you’ll start to play with those nuances, instead of fighting to achieve them – or worse yet, just to hear them.

How to get this elusive “Great Amp”

I chose the words “great amp” because I didn’t want to say “expensive amp”, although to a degree, you do get what you paid for. If you get a well known more expensive amp, your task is going to be much easier. If you’re bound by budget concerns, you’re just going to have to tweak until you find that sweet spot.

There are plenty of options for the guitarist on a budget, however. For example, Peavey’s “Bandit” series are great amps, and they’re affordable, but I’ve heard them sound really good and really, really bad.

The less expensive amps simply need more tweaking, and you need to pay more attention to how they fit into your band’s overall sound.  And don’t be blind to the possibility that your amp might just not be up to the task.

If you pay more, you’ll get an amp that is easier to get great sounds with – right out of the box. Some of what you are paying for is the time the manufacturer spent on the tone of the amp, across the spectrum. They’ve tried to make an amp that really has no “bad” sounds.

Also, get an amp that matches your style of music. Most manufacturers to a pretty good job of knowing their market and designing these amps to sound good in specific genres.

In the guitar store

It’s notoriously difficult to judge an amp in a guitar store. There is a ton of other noise – probably other guitarists, bass players and drummers to distract you. Here are a few tips on getting a good bead on a new amp’s sound in this environment.

When you go to the guitar store, try to resist the temptation to get an amp that sounds “huge” – one that fills the room completely. I’m not talking volume here – I’m talking tone.

Set the amp to “flat” settings on the EQ, and turn off all the effects. Listen to how it sounds at low volumes (distorted or not, depending on your style of music). Listen to how that sound changes as you increase the volume. Try turning the volume up to roughly the same volume as a conversation, now play and see if you can talk or sing over it. You might want to bring a buddy to help with this. If you can comfortably talk or sing over the amp at roughly the same volume, it’s a good sign. It’s easier to do this test if the person talking / singing is not the one doing the listening.

Now, reduce the amp’s volume a bit from the conversational level, and have your buddy snap his fingers a few feet away from your head. Notice where the sonic competition is. This snapping technique is a great way to test a lot of different sounds, I’ve used it in studios. The common finger snap is a good litmus test because it’s a sound you know well, its a reference point. It’ll shift your ears back to a known sound and help you gauge the sound of the amp – which is new to your ears. A snap also has a good amount of treble and mid-range  There’s the hiss from your fingers sliding against each other, and the final pop at the end. Great competition for a guitar amp.

Any way you test, make sure you gradually increase the volume and see what aspects of the tone change as the sound gets louder. If you get a sound you like at conversational levels, and that sound changes completely by the time you get it to guitar-store-acceptable levels, you’re probably not going to like the amp when it’s trying to mesh with the rest of your band.

Tube amps are even more difficult to test in guitar stores – you’ve really got to know what you’re doing. I would recommend using the lowest wattage setting in the store for the above experiments.

Finally, remember that anything new to your ears is likely to sound great at first. Especially if your own amp is not really pleasing to you. Exercise good judgement.

Remember also that the guitar is an instrument in a band – best suited for complimenting other instruments. This means that it leaves room for the other instruments to sound out, and in return – those instruments will compliment your guitar.

The result – a band that sound more professional and “on purpose”.

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Tim Monaghan

Tim has been playing guitar & bass since he was 12 years old and has been in Jazz, funk, rock & metal bands. Influences include Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke, Doug Stegmeyer, Baden Powell, Steve Vai, and pretty much anyone else who has a unique style that expresses their individuality. One of Tim’s many hobbies is building, tweaking, and repairing basses and guitars.

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