GAE amp

Way back in Tone Tip #6: Match the Amp to the Gig, I discussed, among other things, the importance of using an amp that’s small enough—as opposed to too large—for the gig at hand, or for studio or rehearsal work, if you want to bask in that tonal sweet spot where your tubes really start to sing. This installment of Tone Tips is back in that same territory, but addresses the requirements of guitarists who can’t use a small amp to get the job done. Maybe you can’t keep, carry, or afford three or four different sized amps to suit the requirements of venues of different sizes. Or, perhaps you just prefer the “big bottle” tone of a larger amp. Whatever the case, this helping hand has enabled a lot of players to achieve their tone at the required lesser volumes.
 
One popular cure for an amp that’s too powerful for any given room is an output attenuator. Attenuators have been around for some time, but they have become more popular in recent years, due either to the fact that they have become better and more reliable, or to the trend for lower stage and studio volumes (probably some confluence of the two). Some early units of the 1980s had a reputation for allegedly burning out their elements and, as a result, frying essential components within the amp they were attached to, but advances in the designs of these units have greatly improved their reliability, and the safety of any amp running into them.
 
In brief, an attenuator is placed between a tube amp’s output and the speaker (or speaker cab input), connected with proper speaker cables in both instances, and carries large resistors that “soak up” some of the amp’s power before it gets to the speaker, thereby lowering the overall volume, regardless of the amp’s volume control settings. The obvious function of the attenuator is to bring big amps down to the volume levels of the kinds of small amps that have been discussed in previous installments of Tone Tips. This opens them up to the same kinds of recording applications, enabling their use in smaller studios, with sensitive microphones, and so forth. Many players, however, have also been using them a lot more for gigs, to knock of just 6 dB or so, for example, to suit a large-room amp to a smaller room, or to drop their sound down a little bit early on in the night, when the room is empty, and then bring it back up to full output with the twist of a knob or flick of a switch—without changing the sound and distortion character—when the place is packed and the bodies are absorbing more sound. Or, if you are mainly gigging in large rooms and don’t need to rein in your volume for shows, an attenuator can help you get something close to your “live sound” in a smaller rehearsal room, where you might be getting the set together with just a vocal PA, no mikes on the drums, and so forth. There are a lot of uses for the things, and if you don’t own one already, I’m sure almost every player reading this can imagine a situation in which a good attenuator would be handy.
 
These devices do, however, by the nature of their operation, have inherent quirks that sometimes make your rig sound not exactly like the same loud amp, only less loud. The first of these exists simply because driving your speakers at different levels obviously makes them perform differently; any speaker’s reaction and interaction to and with the amp is a big part of the amp’s overall sound, and speakers sound differently when driven hard than they do when driven more gently. The second, perhaps less obvious, thing that comes to mind is that the human ear responds differently to the frequency spectrum at different volume levels. In short, even though the attenuator is allowing your amp to pump the very same output-tube distortion portion of its overall tonal palette to your speakers at a lower volume level, the mere fact of that lower volume will change the way your ear perceives the frequencies that make up that sound. Put another way, given a rig where you’re not getting any speaker distortion at full volume anyway, the amp’s tonal and harmonic spectrum will still sound different to you at 96 dB than at 112 dB—meaning, different in more ways than just quiet vs loud. Many attenuators do also seem to suck out some of the high-end sparkle, too, while often enhancing the midrange. Some of the more complex attenuators have EQ controls to compensate for this, or you can adjust your amp (with the attnuator switched in) to suit your taste.
 
Some players worry about attenuators damaging their amps, and it seems the research is still out on that subject. On paper, the better models seem to have nothing in their own makeup and function that is inherently bad for your amplifier. The simple fact that you are likely to be running your amp harder with an attenuator attached means that all components will be under more of a strain, and tubes in particular, and will be liable to burn out faster. This is just the same as if you were playing in that large auditorium every night anyway, and were turning the amp up to the same higher volume without an attenuator. The amp is still pumping as much voltage through its system and running its tubes and transformers as hot as it would be when normally cranked, but the attenuator is converting a lot of that energy to heat to be dissipated through a large resistor into a heat sink or by other means, rather than sending it all to the speakers. As far as the amp itself is concerned, however, the same volume levels mean the same wear and tear. If that’s where an amp sounds best, many players figure that replacing output tubes more frequently is a small price to pay. The fact that the amp doesn’t sound as loud can make it easy to forget that you are nevertheless driving those tubes and components pretty hard, so anyone using an attenuator night after night should keep an extra sharp eye out for maintenance issues.
 
Ultimately, many players who use attenuators on a regular basis maintain something of a love/hate relationship with these devices: they’d much rather play their amps full blast, which nothing in the way, but an attenuator helps them avoid cheesing off their sound guys, band mates, and the first few rows of the audience night after night. If all this makes an attenuator sound like something that might be useful to you, it’s worth checking one out. They can definitely be a useful part of any well-rounded guitarist’s tool kit—even if matching the right-sized amp to the right-sized room might still be the preferable route for total tonal splendor, whenever possible at least.